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The Vilsack-Obama Talent Primary

What does the presidential candidacy of Iowa's Tom Vilsack have to do with the endless tea-leaf reading about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's intentions?

Quite a bit, actually.

When Vilsack announced Nov. 8 that he was planning to run for president, the outgoing governor of Iowa also leaked out a list of his political inner circle. While many of the names weren't terribly surprising -- campaign manager Craig Varoga, national finance adviser Shari Yost-Gold and communications consultant Jeff Link -- it was the names not included that were the most telling.

Neither media consultant David Axelrod nor pollster Paul Harstad were mentioned, and Vilsack sources confirm that the consultants who helped steer Vilsack into office in 1998 and helped him win reelection in 2002 will not be involved in the national campaign. Instead, Roy Behr, formerly of GMMB, will handle the media while a pollster has yet to be chosen.

So why would Axelrod and Harstad take a pass on Vilsack '08? Because they also happen to be consultants to Obama. Asked about the absence of the two men from the Vilsack political team, Link told Hotline's On Call blog: "The governor has talked to Axelrod and Harstad, and they are interested in what's he doing, but he decided to go with Roy and a new pollster."

Maybe. But it seems odd that as he embarks on a presidential bid Vilsack would willingly jettison his longtime consultants. The more likely explanation is that both Axelrod and Harstad believe that Obama is more likely to run than not and want to preserve their ability to work for the rising Democratic star. The Fix tried to reach both consultants today but did not hear back from either. Watch for an update if they respond to my messages.

Speaking of divining Obama's intentions, several Democrats alerted us to a speech Obama gave a week ago in which he began to formulate his foreign policy vision -- a necessity for a national bid.

In the remarks to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Obama called for a "gradual and substantial reduction" in the number of American troops in Iraq and said the specific dates of that redeployment should be made in consultation with military leaders on the ground.

Obama has opposed the war in Iraq from the get-go -- a bright line of demarcation from Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) who supported the use of force resolution against Iraq in 2002.

Read The Fix's Insider Interview with Gov. Vilsack.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 28, 2006; 1:54 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Call Her the Frontrunner
Next: A Look at Leadership Changes at the Parties' Campaign Committees


Fair point I suppose. What I see in common though is the ability to excite younger voters and - perhaps - draw people into the political process who otherwise would simply sit things out.

Posted by: Colin | November 29, 2006 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I wouldn't say Obama is anything like Bobby Kennedy.

Bobby was like Hillary Clinton. Most people either loved him or hated him. [The Howard Cosell Effect; which is OK for TV, but not quite the same in politics.]

Obama is close to a clean slate. Most people either like him, or simply don't know about him.

Posted by: Nor'Easter | November 29, 2006 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Agreed that Clinton was and is quite popular. But absent the Monica-gate stuff, I think he could have been a transformative figure rather than merely a good and well-liked president. It's obviously early to compare Obama to Bill let alone RFK, but I think he has the most potential to emerge as a transcendent political figure over the next several years. Maybe he won't - that's certainly possible. But it's nice to be excited about politics again - and Senator Obama creates that feeling for a lot of people. I'm not sure the other potential candidates in the Democratic field do.

Posted by: Colin | November 29, 2006 8:49 AM | Report abuse

Please. Be cautious with the RFK-Obama comparisons. Some fools out there might want to complete the comparison to its fullest extent...

This is sad to think about, in the year 2006...

Posted by: Conservative, Texas Dem | November 29, 2006 2:19 AM | Report abuse

I attended the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola at which Senator Obama spoke.
I know some of the advance men and women who staffed Robert Kennedy's Iowa swings in 1968. Joe Klein of TIME Magazine interviewed one of them, Bill Gluba, who staffed RFK's historic trip to the Quad Cities on May 14, 1968. Don't question whether Barack Obama elicits similar passion and energy and hope -- he does.
I've spoken with Kennedy's advance team and they say, clearly, noone has stirred such excitement in Iowa since Bobby Kennedy as has Barack Obama.

Posted by: Porter McNeil | November 29, 2006 12:36 AM | Report abuse

Andy R wrote: "Evan Bayh has him wooped in looks, speaking ability, and credentials." My first thought was, "Gee, Vilsack (the antecedent to the pronoun "him" in the above-quoted sentence) isn't THAT bad, is he?" Then I realized "Evan" wasn't a typo on the part of someone who meant to type "Even," but just the first name of a Senator so synonymous with lack of ability to inspire that to say of anyone else that "even Bayh" has him beat is indeed a serious putdown.

Posted by: LonestarJR | November 28, 2006 10:47 PM | Report abuse

I must say I like Barack Obama, but am worried at the emphasis placed on style over substance, ever since the 2000 election where Bush's style defeated Gore's substance. It doesn't say much for the quality of politics...

At some point in the campaign someone would say: "Obama has no executive experience, or experience at making the tough decisions. Can you trust that he will make a good decision during a crisis, when good looks and interesting speeches are no help at all?"

I just hope that occurs before the General Election, when the Repubs certainly would draw the media's attention to the fact that Obama has less experience than any POTUS in living memory.

Obama, save a run for 2016...

Posted by: JayPe | November 28, 2006 8:51 PM | Report abuse

Colin: Where have you been? Clinton, Bubba, is the most beloved pol in the country. [Clinton blew his chance b/c of his personal failings]. "Obama close to an RFK type figure". I'm missing something in your comment.

Posted by: lylepink | November 28, 2006 7:58 PM | Report abuse

No offense was intended towards Governor Vilsack. I actually like the guy quite a bit and agree that his CV is impressive. My point is only that - fair or not - he has no chance to win the Dem nomination whereas Obama is -- again fair or not == a very real contender.

Maybe we should elect the most "qualified" candidate, whatever that means, but the reality seems to be that we rarely do. I think the country is hungry for a politician that actually inspires people and can draw them together. We haven't had anyone like that in a looong time (Clinton blew his chance b/c of his personal failings), and Obama is about as close to an RFK type figure as I've seen emerge in recent memory. Maybe he's not "ready," but I'm not sure any of the other candidates even have the capacity to accomplish what he MIGHT very well be able to do. That aint nothing.

Posted by: Colin | November 28, 2006 7:21 PM | Report abuse

Axelrod is the consultant to sign up if you intend to play hardball in Iowa. I concur with The Fix ... with Axelrod's past work for Vilsack, his taking a pass on the Vilsack campaign speaks volumes, regardless of what spin Mr. Link is putting out.

Posted by: Quad City Democrat | November 28, 2006 7:17 PM | Report abuse

JayPe, you're right. What would Chris C. do for a living if all of us talked only about important things?

Posted by: Nor'Easter | November 28, 2006 7:05 PM | Report abuse

JayPe: I could not have said it better. The media is giving Obama the attention just to try and defend themselves for their very poor coverage of things that are important to most folks, at least the ones I know.

Posted by: lylepink | November 28, 2006 6:36 PM | Report abuse

Nor'Easter I quite agree re the waste of time studying polls. But do you think its useful to analyse how good people are now before they get consumed by the Media's focus on "electability"?

I wish people would focus on who they WANT to win ("I like him/her cos they believe in the issues that are dear to me") rather than who they think CAN win ("Hillary could never win a general"). Elections have become a sporting contest, where you pick the person most likely to win, even if you don't like them yourself.

Re the new Congress, you'll never stop politicos analysing and talking about the next election!

Posted by: JayPe | November 28, 2006 6:30 PM | Report abuse

"no senator since 1960..."

talkin' about Jack here, natch. But I have heard others say that JFK only won because he did NOT have a sufficient record in the congress to inspire much criticism, and Nixon was forced to run against him as an agent of the Pope.
and maybe Obama is not the ideal candidate, but he does come across the best - as someone who is thinking as he speaks, rather than someone reading what others have thought of for him to say. In terms of experience and positions on the issues I can live with, Al Gore would also be in the running for my vote. But then, he lost the first time because he was unable to lose the stilted, uncomfortable look and sound like he was speaking from conviction rather than from a script. best case scenario: Gore/Obama - ?
of course, I will vote for whoever the democrat is... count me not among those seduced by McCain and his "straight talk." altho i did drink the Kool-Aid the first time (2000), thinking 'this guy is different.' Since then, endorsement of Bush (twice - and campaigned for him in 04!), and an embarrassingly public toeing of the party line on many issues dear to the hearts of Christian conservatives, have convinced me to look elsewhere.
in a perfect world, Gore/Obama (or Obama/Gore), with Wes Clark at Defense, Rubin back at the Treasury, and a solid crop of atheists in the judiciary. I'm not kidding.

Posted by: meuphys | November 28, 2006 6:27 PM | Report abuse

Colin: You missed my point. Obama has ZERO chance of getting the democrats nomination for POTUS period. Vilsack has a very, repeat very, small chance that I would not put at zero. While I was typing, one finger, a few minutes ago a CNN poll had Obama leading in something but I did not catch what it was.

Posted by: lylepink | November 28, 2006 6:25 PM | Report abuse

Frankly, I don't care who's leading in the 2008 polls for either party. We won't get a much of a true sense for most of them until next Summer when it gets serious in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Until then, it's not much different than betting on the 2008 Superbowl now.

I'm more interested in what the new Congress (and the President) will be doing after January 3, 2007.

Posted by: Nor'Easter | November 28, 2006 6:20 PM | Report abuse

Colin says:
you think that Vilsack has a better chance of winning the presidency than Obama?

What has Obama done? He is being sustained by a media frenzy, being treated as a pop superstar. If I may be permitted a musical analogy, Obama may turn out to be Bono and keep the fans loyal for years, or he may be like many other pop stars and disappear without trace in a years time.

At least with Vilsack you have a man of substance, who can point to concrete achievements in executive office over the last decade. He has the CV, he can work on the compelling vision. Obama has the compelling vision, but there's no way he can build his CV much between now and 2008.

Posted by: JayPe | November 28, 2006 6:14 PM | Report abuse

lylepink -- Just to be clear, you think that Vilsack has a better chance of winning the presidency than Obama? And that Hillary makes the best GENERAL ELECTION candidate? Respectfully, I'm not sure how you get there. I would certainly vote for HRC, if she's the nominee, and think she probably would be a decent POTUS. But have you looked at her negatives? In many ways, she's the Dem version of GWB; her electoral ceiling is probably 52%. Now, it's possible to win an election with that kind of a ceiling -- but it sure is tough.

Posted by: Colin | November 28, 2006 6:02 PM | Report abuse

People say foreign policy is not an important qualification to be POTUS, and going on elections in the last 40 years that may well be so (although since 9/11 thats questionable). What is unquestionable is that voters like EXECUTIVE EXPERIENCE. Need I remind anyone, no Senator has won since 1960?

If the Veep isn't running, Governors have historically the inside running. What we look for is someone with a good domestic track record and hope (s)he can transfer that to the international stage. Why is Vilsack being discounted? He's got a similar CV to Clinton in '92, and Bush in 2000. If he can articulate a good vision and plan for the future, he's the man.

If you must have someone with foreign and domestic executive experience, you have two choices:
- the former Vice President
- the former Governor and current Senator of Indiana.

Posted by: JayPe | November 28, 2006 5:59 PM | Report abuse

I'll add to comments that Sen. Obama is the flavor of the month and has a zero chance of going anywhere in the 08 president field of dems. Not quite that low for Vilsack but close. The polls show McCain or Rudy beating Hillary by 4 to 6 points in most of them but neither will get the nod and if they do Hillary will beat either one. The repub side has Senators Graham or Hagle as their best bets.

Posted by: lylepink | November 28, 2006 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Not so far back Chris did a article on Rudy G. the former NYC mayor. On the night of the 2004 elections Rudy earned the title 9/11-9/11-9/11 because he kept repeating himself-just as Bush did in his 2nd. inaugural . Bush began with the statement we must get past 9/11-move on- than threw out his speech made repeated reference to 9/11.

There was indeed no word play about it,just repeated reference to it.
Word play such as a flag being lighted rather than set a blaze.Just in the news about flag burning. you might say rather than call a spade a spade ,change the spade to a heart because it is moreso sensitive to feelings and also alters the facts.

However to get to the point, Chris saw Rudy as a potential potential candidate for the presidency early on although rudy stated at that time that he was not intrested in running.
I said it was to early to tell.

Intresting as it is, the Foley situation - there were two others in the same time line- one now deceased. Scandles on end,corruption -out of control. Republicans running as far away as they can from the President durning campaigns -and as it is investagations are inevitable in to all kinds of illegal doings within the
senate-the Congress and ofcourse the White House.

The point here as I have said befor- it is too early to tell.

A lot is going to happen befor the 2008 elections.
Front runners and those that are being seriousely looked at now-may not be race worthy as time passes.

Pay close attention to what happens after January -and befor.

2008 elections I think are going to be about circumstances and events .
I think journalists are going to be very busy for some time in a while!

Posted by: deskjet | November 28, 2006 5:07 PM | Report abuse


Those are all good points.

Really, out of the group you named, McCain is the only one with substantial foreign policy experience. He has been on the Armed Services Committee, I believe, his entire time in the Senate. Also, he was a POW, during Vietnam.

McCain appears to be widely respected for his judgment on international issues, by both sides of the isle. The perception of McCain being respected on both sides is key. Perception means everything in U.S. politics.

Bayh (a red state senator, and a former 2-term, red state governor) and Hillary are both on the Armed Services too. Bayh is rather hawkish, for a Democrat, on foreign policy. He reminds one of a Truman kind of Democrat; a man who he references all the time.

Giuliani is seen as "America's Mayor," for his "heroics" during September 11. That's it. I, personally, don't see why he's called that. To me, once the very conservative, in the GOP, figure "America's Mayor" out--his support for gay rights, abortion and gun control--he will get out of the race. He has no chance in the GOP primaries.

Vilsack, Romney and Warner: none. Though, to be honest, I like Romney for some reason. He sounds like he knows what he's talking about. He sounds like a get-things-done-with-competence candidate. As a Democrat, I could vote for him.

Edwards was a former Vice-Presidential nominee for President. This means a lot, as this gives him some weight. Also, apparently he has been traveling since his last run at the White House.

Hope that helps.

Posted by: Conservative, Texas Dem | November 28, 2006 4:59 PM | Report abuse

If foreign policy is the main attribute you seek in a presidential candidate, Bill Richardson is your guy.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 28, 2006 4:56 PM | Report abuse

'But the Democrats place so much weight on public speaking -- this after one of the poorer public speakers in presidential history won a second term handily.'

What do you mean - ONE of the poorer? Has there been a worse speaker as president? I don't really remember anyone before
Carter. . .is seems that almost every day my husband and I are rewinding the TiVo to be sure he said what we heard him say. . .

It DOES matter how well the candidate speaks. The Dems need to charm the pants off the independent voters. . .we need every tool at our disposal. . .

And maybe 4 of the 6 previous POTUS didn't have foreign policy experience, but in the post-9/11 era, there is not way a candidate without wins - even if it is McCain vs. Obama, the message will be - 'Who has been around longer, who has fought (how ironic, considering this president), etc - especially w/ a Senator w/o even one full term behind him. Being a Governor at least gives the illusion of having such experience - the Dem candidate that doesn't even have to try to create that is Richardson. . .

Posted by: star11 | November 28, 2006 4:53 PM | Report abuse

I don't understand the comments about Obama's lack of foreign policy experience. What is Hillary's? What is Vilsack's? What is Warner's? What is Guiliani's? What is Romney's? What is Edwards'? What is Bayh's? And finally, what foreign policy experience does John McCain have?

Posted by: larry | November 28, 2006 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Absolutely right, Voice. Obama's not announcing yet b/c he doesn't have the "kwan" ...probably never will. Who's gonna finance that? Labor? nah. Bloggers? yeah right, like they did w/Howard. Chris is right, this is the Talent primary... and since he's been endorsed by Oprah then Barack must have some right? Voters need to really look at substance more this time; after all whoever is the next POTUS will inherit the Iraq debacle and I for one hope it's at least not a dove on foriegn policy.

Posted by: DRJ | November 28, 2006 4:18 PM | Report abuse

Why is international experience viewed as such a prereq for winning in 2008? Let's look at recent history:

W. Bush - Governor of Texas, no foreign policy experience.

Clinton - Governor of Arkansas, no foreign policy experience.

H.W. Bush - Lots of foreign policy experience

Reagan - Governor of California, no foreign policy experience

Carter - Governor of Georgia, no foreign policy experience

Nixon - Lots of experience

So of the last 6 elected presidents, 4 were generally foreign policy novices, 2 had significant experience. I'll stick history as a guide rather than the pontifications of the punditry. Foreign policy experience is something that voters look at. Along with about 100 other things.

Posted by: adam | November 28, 2006 4:15 PM | Report abuse

I think the focus on Senator Obama's "lack of experience" is misplaced. It may be rational to question his lack of foreign policy credentials, but the reality is that very few presidents over the last 25 years have had significant international experience. Quite simply, that isn't the focus for most voters anymore than is the overall quality of a candidate's resume. If it was, I would suggest GWB never would have had a chance.

Now, I don't KNOW that Obama could win. Maybe racism does still present too high of a hurdle at this juncture. Or, just as likely, maybe he won't perform once he's exposed to more scrutiny. But something in my gut says that he will be president some day. Like Bill, he just seems to 'get' voters and is able to connect with hugely divergent groups of people. Also, while racism certainly is real and WILL lose Obama some white votes, no one really knows what his candidacy COULD do to black turn out. If blacks vote in record numbers, the electoral map - especially in the south -- could be turned on its head. At any rate, it is definitely too early to write the man off.

Posted by: Colin | November 28, 2006 4:12 PM | Report abuse

The party would be wise to give these governors a look. Warner, for one, is no longer in the race for the presidency. Evan Bayh, Bill Richardson and Tom Vilsack are all very realistic candidates -- the sort of men who win in November.

But the Democrats place so much weight on public speaking -- this after one of the poorer public speakers in presidential history won a second term handily.

As you know, generally, senators don't win the big title. This time, of course, one might -- that man is John McCain, a conservative that unschooled Democrats have given an upper hand to all those undecided votes in the suburbs for the last few years. They even went around hoping that Kerry would pick him as VP. (I dreamed foolishly of that very thing myself.)

When there is a President McCain, the Democrats need only look to themselves for having built this man into the machine that he is.

Can anyone beat Rudy Giuliani if his party is smart enough to run him? Can anyone beat John McCain right now?

Chris Matthews offered a poll last week that has McCain beating Superstar Hillary by five, Obama by four and John Edwards by seven -- (Edwards: another realistic candidate, although he may want to run for Governor of NC after M. E. leaves and really be ready for 2016.)

I know it's early, but look at those point spreads, and Hillary is already largely defined in the public eye, as is McCain.

Posted by: The Voice of Reason | November 28, 2006 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Beat McCain?! Hah! I'd like to see the odds in vegas on that one! No freakin way he beats McCain. The guy has zero foriegn policy experience...who do Americans want at the tiller in a post-911 world? the bad guys still want to kill us...don't forget.

Posted by: obama'sgotit | November 28, 2006 3:58 PM | Report abuse

The junior Illinois senator seems a little too slick and polished. God help us if the brightest new star on the political horizon has to "formulate his foriegn policy" based on current public opinion polls and electability. He's got no new ideas...who needs more generic pontification and blah-blah-blah speeches?

Posted by: DRJ | November 28, 2006 3:53 PM | Report abuse

Obama's being a senator for only two years does not necessarily disqualify him from consideration, not at all. john kerry has been a senator here in mass. for over 20 years, and proved recently that he still would not be a good choice for the oval office. hopefully, he won't run - won't ask any of us to be the last man to vote for a mistake - but i'm just sayin'... there is an intangible quality that some have and some do not, although it is harder and harder to see in this slick media environment. Obama's got it, Kerry don't. I don't know Vilsack well enough to say yea or nay, but at this point, if he's facing Hilary, he will have neither the money nor the institutional support that Obama could have. Moreover, I could see Obama beating McCain (Giuliani will never be nominated by the GOP right-wingnuts) and I don't see that with Hilary, Vilsack, etc. etc. certainly not Kerry.

Posted by: meuphys | November 28, 2006 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Merge the two eh...
Torack Obasack for supreme leader.

It is rather telling that people are already jumping ship on Vilsack. My thoughts on him are that if he didn't live in Iowa there is no way he would even be mentioned for president. Evan Bayh has him wooped in looks, speaking ability, and credentials.

Posted by: Andy R | November 28, 2006 3:37 PM | Report abuse

Oh - Chris is back!

I love Obama but he is not as good of a speaker as everyone thinks he is - I heard him just before the election and was not impressed. Maybe he was having an off '
day. . .willing to see that might have been the case. His story is just as good as that of Clinton's but without any international experience, there is not way he can win the election. He is a very appealing candidate, but that doesn't mean that he has a chance of winning. I, too, would like to think that America can see beyond the color of a man's skin, but combine the fact that he is black with no international experience and it is a losing proposition. I do think he would make a strong VP candidate. . .I still like Richardson, but am open-minded to anyone but Hillary or Kerry. . .

Posted by: star11 | November 28, 2006 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Whatever the reason, it's never good when you don't dance with the ones who brung ya'. Kind of sloppy out of the gate for Vilsack not to have his previous successful campaigns architects. But, if the country is looking for the antithesis of Bush, Vilsack is the man.

Vilsack is quiet, unassuming, thoughtful, bland and wonky but not a riveting debater or orator, a big minus especially in contrast with Obama's uplifting oratory style.

However, Obama has absolutely no governing experience. If you could merge the two you would have the winning candidate.

Just one Iowan's opinion.

Posted by: Truth Hunter | November 28, 2006 3:17 PM | Report abuse

Not being content with wrecking Iraq, our idiot President is now engaged in re-engineering American marriage and family life. President Bush is reportedly touting Estonia's flat tax. Having lived in Europe I can tell you it works. A man with four children and a wife making, say, $50,000 a year pays the same income tax as a single guy making that amount. The state rebates to the mother, a designated amount for each child. If she is single, however, she receives an additional amount for the added burdon of being a single mother. A married mother doesn't receive that as she is being supported by the husband. The result? There is an active dis-incentive to marry and the state pretty much dictates how children are to be raised. Please, go read about Estonian society; or Scandinavian society, which also has something close to Bush's proposed flat tax. Only 16% of Estonian's believe in a God and less than 5% attend church, and they have an even lower rate of marriage than Sweden - one of the lowest rates of marriage in the world. (Read "The End Of Marriage" -

Now, I know why our resident idiot is touting Estonia. Corporations pay no income tax on re-investmented income. And investors pay no taxes whatsoever. So Bush's supporters would receive taxpayer subidies for outsourcing jobs and capitol and technology. The fact that their flat tax will utterly wreck Amercian society is of little consequence to the same sort of people who will ship American jobs overseas, sell our most sensative technological secrets, and put profit before the very lives of American citizens.

THAT is what the next election is about. Which candidate has sufficient brains to understand that there are consequences to programs, even tax laws, and thinks things through. Or, maybe they really do think of those consequences and simply don't care? Then, it's our job to look at the consequences and stop nut jobs like this from destroying us.

Posted by: MikeB | November 28, 2006 3:15 PM | Report abuse

The fascination with Senator Obama is interesting, but hardly surprising. He has a speaking style that is a hybrid of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the strong poetry of Kennedy and the evangelical passion of King. He, also, is somewhat of a cipher on the specific policy questions that have vexed all of the Senators who have run for Congress in the past.
It is a sad that the only people who have won the Presidency in a half a century have done so because they didn't have national or international experience (except for Nixon, and he won because of the fight in the Democratic party over Vietnam and civil rights).
Obama has a reasonable chance to pick up the Democratic nomination but has no chance in the general election. Anyone who thinks racism has disappeared from the American psyche enough to have a black man elected President isn't living in the real world.
Another sad thing.

Posted by: Capeman | November 28, 2006 2:54 PM | Report abuse

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