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The Case For Tom Vilsack

As Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack formally kicks off his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination this morning, it seemed like the perfect time to make the case for his chances in a field potentially crowded with candidates named Clinton, Obama and Gore.

Iowa's Tom Vilsack
Tom Vilsack becomes the first Democrat to officially declare his presidential candidacy today. Above, he speaks Nov. 20 at the Statehouse in Des Moines. (AP Photo)

For the case against a Vilsack bid, check back early next week. Neither of these posts should be read as an indicator of whether Vilsack can win or not. These posts are meant to spark conversation, so feel free to agree, disagree, condemn or compliment in the comments section below.

Vilsack Can Win!

Any argument for Vilsack starts with his life story -- perhaps the most compelling of any candidate on either side considering the 2008 race.

An orphan, Vilsack was adopted by a couple in Pittsburgh. His adoptive father struggled financially and his mother battled alcoholism. Vilsack has described his upbringing as "troubled but loving." He went on to graduate from Hamilton College and Albany Law School. He married his wife -- Christie -- and they settled in her native Iowa. He was elected mayor of Mt. Pleasant in 1987 and to the state Senate five years later. In 1998 he made a miraculous comeback to win the governorship and was reelected four years later.

That sort of "up from the bootstraps story," which is an essential part of Vilsack's stump speech, is extremely compelling for voters who may feel that politicians have little understanding of the everyday lives of regular Americans. Vilsack, more so than any other candidate currently considering the race, has a sort of "everyman" appeal that may carry extra value for an electorate sick of politics as usual.

Vilsack also has somewhat successfully avoided being typecast as liberal or a conservative within the party. Yes, he is the head of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, but he also enjoys relatively positive relationship with two antagonists of that segment of the party -- organized labor and the blog ("netroots") community. While neither is likely to embrace Vilsack with open arms (labor seems to be leaning toward former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the blogs -- to the extent they have unity -- favor people like Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former Vice President Al Gore and retired Gen. Wesley Clark), they will not likely be openly antagonistic to the Iowa governor's candidacy either. Vilsack supporters believe his concrete accomplishments as governor -- building six new power plants during his tenure, a focus on early childhood education -- that will play well to Democrats regardless of their ideological underpinnings.

The other primary argument in Vilsack's favor is geography. John Kerry's narrow loss in 2004 has made many within the party wary of nominating another northeastern candidate (Sen. Clinton, we're looking at you). The argument is that a candidate from the Midwest or South is better positioned to win key states like Minnesota, Ohio and -- you guessed it -- Iowa.

In 2000, Al Gore carried Iowa 49 percent to 48 percent over George W. Bush, a margin of 4,000 votes out of more than 1.2 million cast. Four years later, Bush beat Kerry 50 percent to 49 percent in the state -- 10,000 votes separated the two.

Putting together the electoral votes necessary for a Democrat to win the presidency in 2008 can be done any number of ways, but in each of the formulas, Iowa (7 electoral votes), Minnesota (8), and Ohio (20) are essential. Vilsack is likely to argue that he would give Democrats their best chance of piling up electoral votes in the Midwest while not hurting their chances in other regions of the country as -- arguably -- Clinton might do in the South.

Vilsack allies argue that much of Kerry's winning pitch in Iowa and beyond in 2004 was centered on the idea that he was the candidate best equipped to beat Bush. Winnability matters to early caucus and primary voters, they say, stressing that Vilsack has a strong case to make against anyone Republicans nominate.

Before making general election calculations, however, Vilsack must find a way to win his party's nomination -- a road that just happens to start in his home state. It remains to be seen whether Vilsack's native-son status is a blessing or a curse, but it's clear that he will be a major player in the Iowa caucuses along with Clinton, Obama, Edwards and Evan Bayh (if they should all choose to run).

Should Vilsack win the Iowa caucuses, he immediately becomes a major player in the nomination fight. Although he remains largely unknown outside of his home state, a win in the caucuses could well propel him to competitiveness in Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Vilsack is certainly not as well known as some of the top-tier candidates expected to run for the Democratic nod. But today he becomes the first Democrat to formally launch his campaign, which means something. He appears set to spend the next year traveling the country looking for support.

Conventional wisdom dictates that Vilsack is a long shot for the nomination. But conventional wisdom can be wrong. Vilsack is hoping that in his case it is.

*** Read Post reporter Dan Balz's report from the Vilsack announcement, and read the full text of Vilsack's speech (watch video excerpts below).

Monday: The Case Against Vilsack.

The Fix sat down with Vilsack early this year to talk about his governing philosophy and political future.

Democratic Governor Tom Vilsack launched his bid for the presidency Thursday, calling for an end to U.S dependence on foreign oil in favor of alternative energy sources. (AP Video)

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 30, 2006; 9:40 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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