SOMEWHERE ALONG U.S. ROUTE 20, IOWA
“I think I’m making political history,” Tom Vilsack tells me. It’s a frigid January night, and we’re in an SUV barreling down a lonely stretch of highway amid the fallow cornfields of eastern Iowa. With the speedometer nudging 70 miles per hour, we’re headed to the tiny city of Independence, where a restaurant is hosting an event for Vilsack’s presidential campaign. In a Democratic primary fieldpacked to the gills with candidates whose election would represent a monumental political first—Hillary Clinton would be the first woman elected president, Barack Obama the first African American, Bill Richardson the first Latino, Dennis Kucinich the first elf—it’s tough for a middle-aged white guy like Vilsack to earn a place for himself in the political history books. But, on this night, he believes he’s found one: He’s making political history by eschewing a chauffeur. With one hand on the steering wheel and the other gripping a drive-thru cheeseburger, he jokingly boasts, "I think I’m the first presidential candidate to ever drive himself to a campaign event."
Vilsack can pull off this historic feat because he’s in Iowa, where he has lived for the last 32 years, eight of which he just spent as governor. In other words, he knows the state’s political landscape—to say nothing of its roads— better than any othercandidate in the 2008 presidential race. Which is the main reason why Vilsack is running for president in the first place. Although he was a popular two-term governor of a state that, until he took office, hadn’t elected a Democrat in more than 30 years; althoughhe served as the chairman of politically important national groups like the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council; although he came within a hair’s breadth of being tapped as John Kerry’s running mate in 2004—in spite of all these credentials, Vilsack’s presidential campaign would be inconceivable were he not from the state that holds the nation’s first presidential caucus.
But, despite this home-field advantage and the fact that he was the first Democratic candidate to officially declare, Vilsack has had a hard time getting much traction. He’s currently just a blip—if that—in the national polls, and he’s struggling to raise campaignfunds, having scraped together little more than $1 million of the $20 million it’s assumed any real contender will need to compete.Clinton, Obama, and John Edwards, he concedes, "can go out and in one night raise what it may take me a month to raise." Vilsack’s challenge even extends to the physical: With sloping shoulders and a flat, stolid speaking style, he resembles a put-upon high school principal rather than an ambitious politician. Even his supporters seem to concede he’s lacking a bit in the charisma department: His wife calls him a "workhorse"; a close friend describes him as "a plodder." On this night, he’s wearing a splashy purple tie, but he still manages to come across as essentially colorless.
And yet, to hear Vilsack tell it, all of these shortcomings are easily surmountable. With one eye on the road to Independence and the other on the road to the White House, he confidently spells out the scenario in which he becomes the Democratic presidential nominee. "I win in Iowa," he says matter-of- factly as his car speeds by a sign for the National Farm Toy Museum. "Then I do better than expected in New Hampshire. And then people begin to ask the question: Which of the two or three remaining candidates has the best chance of winning the states in the Midwest, the Southeast, the Mountain West? And I think there’s no question I would have the best chance." Once he wins in Iowa, Vilsack says, the press will stop treating the Democratic primaries as a three-horse race between Clinton, Edwards, and Obama. Once he wins in Iowa, he says, the fund-raising will pick up and "the Internet does kick in." Once he wins in Iowa, "it’s a whole different ballgame."
But, first, Vilsack actually has to win in Iowa. As we speed toward Independence, where Vilsack will make the case to his fellow Iowans about why he should be president, it begins to snow. Initially, it’s just a flurry, but soon the snow begins to pick up, and before long it’s whipping across the road and blocking out the horizon.When we started the trip, Vilsack explained that he wanted to get behind the wheel—rather than his campaign aide, who was relegated to the back seat—because the state troopers who served as his chauffeurs had never let him drive while he was governor. (He’d just left office earlier that month.) "My driving record’s been quite good for the last eight years," he quipped. At the time, underclear skies, this didn’t seem like such a big deal. But now, with the snow coming down in curtains and visibility reduced to about ten feet, it occurs to me that it might be nice to have someone with fresher driving experience in command of the vehicle. It seems like the same thought might be occurring to Vilsack, too. No longer paying as much attention to my questions—or his cheeseburger—hehas both hands on the wheel and is leaning forward in his seat,trying to see out the windshield. "Boy, this is tough," he mutters, as the speedometer drops to about 40 miles per hour.
Navigating Iowa’s presidential politics, it turns out, has proved similarly difficult for Vilsack. Despite the fact that he’scounting on his favorite-son status to carry him to victory in thecaucus and give his campaign a much- needed boost of momentum, hispresidential candidacy hasn’t been faring much better in his homestate than it has in the rest of the country. He’s been mired in a distant third or fourth place in numerous polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers—the most recent of which had him at 12 percent, 23 points behind the first-place Clinton. Meanwhile, a Des Moines Register survey last month found that only 40 percent of Iowans thought it was a good idea for Vilsack to run for president, with 47 percent deeming it a bad idea. And that’s bad news for Vilsack, because, as even he concedes, anything less than a first-place finish in Iowa will instantly transform his longshot presidential bid into a no-shot one. Which means that, before Vilsack tries to convince the rest of the country that he’s presidential material, he’s going to have to do a better job of convincing the people in his own backyard.
Unlike most successful Iowa politicians, the 56-year-old Vilsack isn’t originally from the Hawkeye State, but he has a personal story compelling enough to make up for that shortcoming in the minds of Iowa voters. He was born in Pittsburgh, where, a few days after his birth, he was placed in a Catholic orphanage. His adoptive family was financially and emotionally troubled: His father ran a struggling storefront real-estate business and his mother battled alcohol and prescription-drug addiction; he recalls that when his mother was drunk she’d sometimes beat him with a metal belt-buckle. He eventually escaped Pittsburgh to attend Hamilton College in New York, where he met his future wife, Christie. After graduating from Albany Law School, he moved to Christie’s hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, where he joined her father’s law practice. "I wasn’t born in Iowa," Vilsack likes to say, "but I got here as quickly as I could."
Vilsack might have stayed a small-town lawyer were it not for a strange and tragic event. In 1986, a deranged farmer angry about zoning issues shot and killed Mount Pleasant’s mayor during a city council meeting. The slain mayor’s father urged Vilsack to run to carry on his son’s work. After five years tending to the civicaffairs of Mount Pleasant, he was elected to the state Senate. In 1998, he ran for governor. He scored a narrow upset victory in the Democratic primary over a former state Supreme Court justice, and then he squared off against former Republican Representative Jim Lightfoot in the general election. Although he began the race trailing by 20 points in the polls, he slowly chipped away at Lightfoot’s lead and ultimately won by a comfortable five-point margin. The Almanac of American Politics deemed Vilsack "probably the biggest upset winner of the year."
As governor, Vilsack was hamstrung by declining state revenues and a hostile legislature (there were Republican majorities in both houses for six of his eight years in office). Nonetheless, he managed some impressive achievements. He expanded preschool access,reduced class sizes, and increased health care coverage forchildren and the poor. He created a $500 million fund to lure businesses to Iowa and a $250 million fund for community development projects— both of which helped reverse the state’s "brain drain."And he altered Iowa’s partisan balance—with Democrats nowcontrolling the state’s governorship, House, and Senate for thefirst time in 42 years. "He took a purple state and made it into a solid blue state," says former Iowa Democratic chairman Gordon Fischer. When Vilsack left office in January, a Register poll foundthat 69 percent of Iowans approved of the job he did as governor.
Of course, there are plenty of popular and successful two-term Democratic governors, including Kansas’s Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona’s Janet Napolitano, Tennessee’s Phil Bredesen, and NorthCarolina’s Mike Easley—and, other than New Mexico’s Bill Richardson, you don’t see any of them running for president this year. Then again, these governors didn’t have presidential candidates constantly kissing up to them for the last eight years. From the moment Vilsack took office, he was romanced by practically any Democrat even thinking about the White House, and, while he officially stayed neutral in both the 2000 and 2004 Iowa caucuses,he wielded a significant amount of power behind the scenes. When Christie Vilsack endorsed John Kerry nine days before the 2004 caucus, many viewed it as a tacit endorsement of Kerry by her husband—and some Iowa political observers point to it as themoment when Kerry’s victory in the caucus became assured. Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that the kingmaker would start thinking that he himself should be king. As Vilsack says, "Having watched all these folks come through the state in the eight years I was governor, I realized that I could do what they were doing."
For Vilsack, running for president means trying to translate hisachievements in Iowa into a national platform. With its abundance of corn and soybeans, Vilsack as governor pushed Iowa to increase its production of ethanol and soy diesel; he also focused on wind energy—ultimately making Iowa a leader in alternative andrenewable fuels. And so, as a presidential candidate, Vilsack is making "energy security" his number-one issue, framing it as asilver bullet that addresses any number of concerns, from globalwarming to the economy to, most importantly in the currentpolitical environment, America’s reliance on oil from, as Vilsackcalls them, "countries that wish to do us harm."
Along those lines, Vilsack has staked out the most aggressiveantiwar position among the Democratic contenders, calling on Congress to use its spending power to bring an immediate end to thewar in Iraq. "Those in Congress who voted for the war, those in Congress who have voted to continue the war, and those in Congress who have funded the war can surely vote to end the war," he said in a speech at the Democratic National Committee’s winter meetings last weekend. "Congress has the constitutional responsibility and a moral duty to cut off funding for the status quo. Not a cap—an end. Not eventually—immediately." And if a cynic suggests that Vilsack has a certain freedom to make this demand of Congress—since he himself doesn’t actually have to vote on theissue—he gets a bit testy. "I called every family who lost a loved one in the state while I was governor," he says. "So don’t tell me I’ve got a free ride on this."
The challenge for Vilsack now is getting his fellow Iowans to buy the idea that his experience as their governor has prepared him to be their president. As he drives through the snow in his SUV(which, given his focus on energy security, is a hybrid), he concedes that it’s an uphill battle. "People perceive me as a governor," he says. "They have to make the transition to presidential candidate. By nature, we have a deep sense of humility in this state, and I think people have to recognize that somebody from this state has every reason in the world and every right to participate in this debate and be part of this campaign."
Before we headed to Independence, I watched Vilsack try to make this case to some potential caucus-goers in Dubuque. Speaking to about 125 people who’d gathered in the rotunda of the river city’s mainlibrary, he started his spiel by playing up his home-field advantage, pointing out a campaign aide who’s a "Dubuquer." He pledged that, as president, he would expand health care, make theUnited States more energy-secure, and end the war in Iraq. But the heart of his speech was devoted to addressing the elephant in the room. "Now I know what you’re thinking," he said after ticking offhis campaign promises. "You’re thinking, `To do all that, you’vegot to get elected. How can you possibly get elected? ... You were our governor and we kind of liked you, you were a good guy, but, gee, you’re running against all these rock stars.’" The crowd laughed- -albeit nervously, as if he had indeed divined their secret thoughts. He waited for the laughter to die down. "Folks," he continued, "I’m not a rock star, I’m the first to admit that.But I’m rock solid."
Vilsack went on to make a case for his candidacy that tried to blend Iowans’ state pride with their famous fixation on electability."It’s not enough just to get Democrats," he said. "You’ve got to be able to reach over and get the folks in the middle. ... They’re in cities like Dubuque, they’re in small towns like the ones we’ve gothere in Iowa, they’re in Missouri, they’re in Ohio, they’re in Kentucky and Tennessee, they’re in Colorado, they’re in all of those states that we have not been able to win in." He told the crowd that he alone among the Democratic candidates could reachthose voters and win in those places—largely because he was an Iowan. "I’m from a small town in southeast Iowa, and I live on Main Street. And those are Main Street values that have been with me,"he said. "Your values are with me. It is your values that this country needs ... and it’s your values that are reflective of thevalues in those states that we have to have to win."
Afterward, in the car, Vilsack says it’s precisely these sorts of gatherings that will eventually lead to his victory in Iowa. "In a caucus state, you build a campaign brick by brick, one person at atime, and that’s what we’re doing," he says. "We could have anevent where 1,000 people show up or 2,000 people show up, butthat’s not the intimacy that Iowans want." The big crowds the rockstars are drawing, he maintains, are meaningless; what matters in Iowa, he explains, is getting commitments from voters that they’ll caucus for you. "I’m told John Edwards had an event in JohnsonCounty. Five hundred people showed up. ... I don’t think they tooka name," he says. "I don’t know how many names Senator Clintonreceived [when she came through Iowa a few days earlier], but Iknow they don’t have an office, they don’t have a telephone number."(Vilsack, by contrast, already has six offices and 15 trained staff in Iowa; and in January, his campaign made 19,000 live phone callsto Iowans.)
Indeed, Vilsack argues that the fact that he has to compete so hard against the rock stars in Iowa actually helps him, since people won’t be able to dismiss his victory in the caucus as "expected"—as they did with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin in 1992, after the other presidential candidates ceded his home state’s caucus to him. "Do you think Hillary Clinton was playing for second when shebrought 44 people here with her this past weekend?" Vilsack asks."Do you think Barack Obama, when he comes here again, is playing for second? How could John Edwards play for second? He can’t get by without Iowa. They’re playing to win. So this is a full-scale, knockdown, drag-out deal."
Finally, we come to the exit for Independence, and Vilsack pulls off the highway. Slowly cruising into the deserted downtown, he breathes a sigh of relief. "I thought I did pretty well," he says of his driving performance, as the aide and I eagerly concur. His focus now off the road and on the campaign appearance ahead,Vilsack asks his aide for a breath mint—to combat the onions on his cheeseburger—and a quick run-down of a few notables who will beat the event. He parks the car and heads into the restaurant, where he’ll deliver the same spiel he gave in Dubuque to a group of about75 people who have gathered in a basement banquet room. When it’s over, they’ll give Vilsack a nice round of applause. Most of them will shake his hand, some will ask for his autograph, and a few will even fill out a card committing to caucus for him. And then,when the last of them has left the restaurant, Vilsack will get intohis car and go back on the highway to drive the 150 miles throughthe snow to Des Moines, where he’ll catch a few hours of sleep before heading out the next day to continue his uphill battle.
As Vilsack’s SUV disappears into the blustery night, I think back to something he’d said during the drive to Independence, when the snowwas coming down hard and he was pushing forward to make it to themeeting on time. I’d asked him about Joe Lieberman and his place in U.S. politics. I was curious to see whether Vilsack would take theopportunity to distance himself from his old Democratic Leadership Council ally now that Lieberman was publicly flirting with endorsing a Republican for president and had become a pariah to manyof the people who’d be voting in Democratic primaries. Vilsack didn’t take the bait, but his answer was revealing in another way."His place in politics?" he asked me in response, chuckling. "I mean, honestly, all of us are going to be footnotes with the exception of a few of us who end up being elected president, " he said, pulling into the left lane to pass a car that had slowed to a crawl in front of us. "But being a footnote’s not bad," he went on."It’s better than not being in the book at all."