Former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, the first Democrat to announce a 2008 candidacy for the White House, abruptly dropped out of the race yesterday, a victim of the prodigious fundraising demands of an early-starting campaign and the star appeal of rivals Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
"This process has become to a great extent about money -- a lot of money," Vilsack said at a news conference in Des Moines yesterday. "And it is clear to me that we would not be able to continue to raise money in the amounts necessary to sustain not just a campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire but a campaign across this country. So it is money and only money that is the reason that we are leaving today."
Vilsack, who called for a swift end to the Iraq war and proposed an ambitious plan for reducing dependence on foreign oil, was considered a long shot for the nomination, so his early departure does not fundamentally change the shape of the Democratic contest. But it does change the dynamic in Iowa, the state whose caucuses will kick off the nomination battle early next year.
Rival campaigns immediately began scrambling for endorsements of Iowa elected officials and prominent party activists and to hire Vilsack staff members. Clinton's team was on the phone reconnecting with Iowa activists with whom she and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, have had relationships dating back years. Obama made calls into both Iowa and New Hampshire to speak with Vilsack supporters, encouraging them to join his campaign.
None of the other candidates had conceded Iowa to Vilsack, as Democratic candidates did in 1992 when Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was seeking the Democratic nomination. But Vilsack's presence in the race -- he had vowed to win the caucuses when he launched his campaign -- offered at least a thin rationale for a poor finish by those in the top tier of the Democratic field.
For the leading candidates -- Clinton, Obama and former senator John Edwards of North Carolina -- that excuse is now gone, adding to the pressure on each of them to organize the state as early as possible or risk an embarrassing finish, Democratic strategists said yesterday.
Vilsack's decision underscored the enormous financial challenges facing lesser-known candidates as they compete for contributions against Clinton and Obama. It also highlighted how the intense start to the 2008 campaign has dramatically escalated the cost of running, even in the opening months of competition.
In past years, candidates rarely dropped out until they had spent three to six months trying to raise money. This year, however, candidates have been forced to build larger campaign operations and begin serious organizing earlier than ever.
"This is a nomination process on steroids," said Josh Earnest, Vilsack's press secretary. "It started earlier than anybody expected, and it's requiring more money than ever before."
Jerry Crawford, one of the leading Democratic strategists in Iowa, said everyone knew that Clinton would be a formidable fundraiser, but "when Obama got in the race, it just took all the cash out of the room and all of the fundraisers out the room."
Vilsack formally launched his candidacy Nov. 30 and raised about $1.13 million by year's end. Aides said he was on track to add only about $1.3 million more by the end of the first quarter -- an amount Obama raised at a Hollywood fundraiser on Tuesday -- and already was in debt.
Strategists predicted yesterday that the same problem could befall other second-tier candidates -- particularly later this year, a point when fundraising generally becomes more difficult for most campaigns.
Vilsack served two terms as governor of Iowa and developed a reputation as one of the most thoughtful students of public policy among the nation's governors. He served as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association and was a leading voice in the National Governors Association.