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Iowa governor drops out of presidential race

John McCormick
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
Democratic presidential candidate Tom Vilsack, a former governor of Iowa, addresses the crowd during the Nevada Democratic Presidential Candidates Forum in Carson City, Nevada, Wednesday, February 21, 2007. (Brian Baer/Sacramento Bee/MCT)

CHICAGO - After just 86 days in the race, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack could well have more influence on the presidential nomination process from outside the contest than he did from inside.

With his announcement Friday that he is dropping out of the crowded Democratic field, Vilsack goes from being at the bottom of national polls to being in a position where he could deliver a helpful endorsement - and the remnants of a political operation - to another candidate.

His departure is already sending significant ripples through the Democratic field, freeing up Iowa activists, campaign strategists and elected officials who were backing Vilsack out of a sense of loyalty to his lengthy service in a state where the nation's first voting will happen in less than a year.

For his part, the former governor said he has no plans to immediately endorse any candidate, although the lobbying process for his support and the backing of some of his key campaign leadership is clearly already under way.

Des Moines lawyer Jerry Crawford, who declared his support of Vilsack months ago, received "several" phone calls Friday afternoon from Democratic presidential candidates seeking his backing.

"The irony is that Tom Vilsack had lapped the field in terms of organization in the state," said Crawford, who was state chairman for Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid in 2004. "He was way, way ahead of people in that regard, but because of money, he couldn't stay in the race."

Crawford said Vilsack had more than 3,000 Iowans committed to supporting him. "It is a very large pool of key people in the state," he said. "They are now on the market."

In dropping out, Vilsack, who was polling fourth in Iowa, said he was a victim of the high-dollar fund raising that increasingly dominates the nomination process.

"We have to have a real debate about public financing and the ability to enable the primary and caucus process to be about ideas ... not just simply about a money primary," he said at a news conference in Des Moines. "That's the game that's being played today, and it's a game that obviously I was not able to play as successfully as I wanted to."

Through Dec. 31, Vilsack had raised $1.1 million, but had only about $396,000 on hand. Top-tier candidates, meanwhile, are raising millions of dollars in a single evening with the expectation that it will take at least $50 million to have a serious shot at winning the nomination in 2008.

Within minutes of his announcement, most of the Democrats in the race had issued statements praising the former governor.

"Tom Vilsack is an outstanding public servant whose initiatives in Iowa on education reform, health care and alternative energy are models from which our entire nation can learn," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said in a statement. "More than that, Tom brings a badly needed sense of honor and decency to our politics, and a passionate advocacy for an end to the war in Iraq."

For Obama, it removes one competitor in Iowa who was also trying to make opposition to the war a hallmark. A former mayor and state legislator from Mount Pleasant, Iowa, Vilsack's support was strongest in eastern Iowa, where Obama's camp hopes to plant its flag because of its proximity to Illinois and overlapping media markets. "It opens some doors that weren't open before," one campaign operative said.

The Democratic field remains dominated by Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., as well as former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

When Vilsack entered the race, some expressed concern that he would ruin the Iowa caucuses by frightening away candidates as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, did when he ran for president in 1992 and won a virtually uncontested caucus on the Democratic side.

"It removes that whole question of a favorite son and whether the Iowa caucuses are still relevant," said Steffen Schmidt, a professor of political science at Iowa State University. "It was an albatross around his neck because he had to win it or come in a close second."

Vilsack's departure from the field will allow Harkin to consider endorsing another candidate, something he has made an art form of in the lead-up to the caucuses every four year.

"He would have made an exceptional president," Harkin said in a statement. "This is certainly not the last we've seen of Tom Vilsack."

When he plunged into the 2008 race in late November, Vilsack, 56, touted himself as a Midwestern optimist and a moderate underdog focused on bringing opportunity, security and energy independence to Americans. On Friday, he lectured his fellow Democrats on how they should conduct themselves in his state.

"To those who remain in this race ... here's my hope and my prayer: that you understand that it isn't just about large crowds. It isn't just about the cameras," he said. "It's about ordinary folks in living rooms and kitchens and church basements who genuinely care about this country who need to be listened to."

In 1998, Vilsack was elected Iowa's first Democratic governor in 32 years and served two terms. He was one of three finalists considered for a running mate by Kerry in 2004.

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