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Vilsack Joins Team Clinton

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack is set to endorse Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign for the 2008 Democratic nomination at a press conference today in Des Moines.

But how much of a boost should Clinton expect from receiving Vilsack's nod?

Regular Fix readers know we are skeptical about the power of endorsements, and recent history has shown that they matter little in Iowa.

David Yepsen, the most influential political reporter in Iowa, made that point in a column last Friday. "Endorsement politics mean little in Iowa, especially in presidential races, where caucus-goers are notorious for making up their own minds about whom to support for the presidency," Yepsen wrote.

Yepsen noted that in 2004 former Gov. Howard Dean won the two most coveted endorsements -- from Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees -- only to finish a distant third in the Democratic caucuses.

Endorsements won't win Clinton the Iowa caucuses next January. But that doesn't mean Vilsack's endorsement is meaningless either.

First and foremost, Clinton now has a strong "in" with Vilsack's political network -- built up over eight years as governor. Neutral observers have said that prior to Vilsack's endorsement, Clinton had the third best team in the state -- behind former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Edwards's Iowa team is led by Jennifer O'Malley, who was field director during his stronger-than-expected caucus showing in 2004. Paul Tewes, a former political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and a veteran of Al Gore's 2000 Iowa caucus campaign, leads Obama's effort in the state. Former Harkin chief of staff JoDee Winterhof is Clinton's state director.

While Winterhof is very highly regarded within Iowa and national circles, the addition of Vilsack's political network provides significantly more depth to the organization. And don't forget Vilsack's wife, Christie, whose political know-how may well eclipse that of her husband. In 2004, Christie Vilsack endorsed John Kerry and closely advised the Massachusetts senator as he went on to win the caucuses.

Second, Tom Vilsack appears to be the rare elected official who gets in the trenches to make sure his endorsement counts. John Lapp, who managed Vilsack's 2002 reelection campaign but is unaffiliated in the 2008 presidential race, called his former boss a "thoughtful, tireless workhorse."

While he was still in the 2008 presidential race, Vilsack was a leading candidate in the "ideas primary" -- offering a series of detailed policy proposals that could serve as guideposts for Clinton as she carefully unveils her own plans for the country's future. "I would expect to see Vilsack's influence and impact in Clinton's policies and agenda very soon," predicted Lapp.

One luxury that Clinton may no longer enjoy is underdog status in Iowa. Most polling done in the state before Vilsack dropped out showed Edwards in the lead followed by Clinton, Obama and Vilsack; no other candidates had double-digit support. While it's ridiculous to assume Clinton will now gain all of Vilsack's supporters, his endorsement means she has a chance to get the majority of them.

What does all of this mean in raw political terms? With the backing of Vilsack, the expectations and stakes are now raised for Clinton in Iowa. The Clinton team will surely pooh-pooh the idea that she should now be expected to win the caucuses. But the reality is that if she loses while enjoying Vilsack's strong support, it will complicate attempts to shrug off the defeat as meaningless.

For Vilsack, he has ensured himself a prime place in the veepstakes should Clinton wind up as the Democratic nominee. In 2004, John Kerry seriously considered Vilsack as his runningmate. Also, Iowa has been a central battleground in the past two presidential elections: In 2004, President George W. Bush carried it 50 percent to 49 percent; four years earlier Gore won it 49 percent to 48 percent -- a margin of less than 4,000 votes.

UPDATE, 11:45 a.m. ET: Here's the message Vilsack sent out to Hillary Clinton's campaign e-mail list:

Dear Friend,

I'm not someone to play coy about my intentions. When I make a decision, I go all in and follow through. Hillary Clinton has the same determination, and it is something I have always admired.

When I first ran for governor of Iowa in 1998, many people didn't give me much of a chance. But not Hillary. She told me she'd do everything she could do to help, and she followed through. She stood by my side, and Iowa is better for it. She helped ignite the spark that changed Iowa from a red state to a blue state.

By standing with Hillary now we'll help show that we are strong enough to win back the White House -- and America will be stronger and better for it.

Please join me and Christie and help Hillary make a strong showing before the March 31 deadline:

Christie and I plan on spending the next 10 months helping Hillary win the Iowa caucuses and the other states necessary to win the Democratic nomination -- and after that, the White House in 2008.

I am proud to do it because of all the candidates running, she has the best ideas, the most energy, and the values and vision to lead our country in the right direction after eight long years of George W. Bush.

She's going to put an end to the war in Iraq. She's going to make sure every American has access to affordable health care. She's going to make us energy secure. And I know she'll put children and families first -- she has fought for them for decades.

Today, Christie and I made a contribution to Hillary's campaign, and we did it for two reasons. First, we believe in her campaign. And second, the critical March 31 FEC deadline is just five days away.

We must show the magnitude of the grassroots support for this campaign in the next five days. I hope you'll join us and make a contribution at this critical time:

I just returned from my first real vacation in nine years, and I am ready to get back to work -- because we don't have time to wait.

This country wants real change.

That's why I announced I'm endorsing Hillary today, and that's why Christie and I are going to travel around our state and the country, introducing Hillary to our friends and talking to everyone we meet about why Hillary is the right choice for Iowa and America.

We're going to give this campaign everything we've got. Please join us and make your contribution before the March 31 deadline:

I'm excited about joining this campaign. Thanks for your support.

Tom Vilsack

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 26, 2007; 7:45 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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