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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Vilsack Bows Out

Today’s major political story was former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack’s decision to pull the plug on his presidential campaign. He made it clear money was the sole reason. Contra some snarky blog posts suggesting that blogger reaction to Vilsack’s wonky if politically dangerous reference to the benefit structure for Social Security earlier this week somehow instantly did him in, it’s clear his precarious financial position was the real problem.Vilsack had a complex if not irrational political strategy all along. Step one was to utilize his popularity and political base in Iowa, whose Caucuses are showing every indication of being even more important in 2008 than in the past, to separate himself from other “lower-tier” candidates. Step two was to employ an upset win in Iowa over the big boys and girls to elevate himself to the top tier, over the barely breathing political body of anyone croaked by a loss or poor showing Iowa (most likely the perceived current Iowa front-runner, John Edwards). And step three was to become a national alternative to whoever became the post-Iowa, post-New Hampshire front-runner.But the most complicated part of the Vilsack strategy was overcoming the legendary reluctance of Iowans to give up their king- or queen-making national status in the nominating process and support a favorite son. That meant showing the flag nationally to eliminate his “mere-favorite-son” status, and also building the best field organization in Iowa of any candidate. Both measures required a lot of money, and more money than his campaign could raise, particularly after Barack Obama jumped into the race and attracted most of the tactical, good-bet funds that hadn’t already been hoovered up by HRC and others.The sad reality is that without vast personal wealth or access to powerful “bundlers” of campaign contributions, it’s pretty much impossible to run a viable presidential campaign, particularly if you are not well-known or regarded as “top-tier.” Raising tens of millions of dollars overnight at $2300 a pop (the legal limit for individual contributions) without big-time “bundlers” or a pre-established national fundraising base is pretty much impossible. Vilsack gave it a good try, beginning his official campaign before anyone else, and trying to distinguish himself from the front-runners with dramatic positions on Iraq and on energy policy. But it wasn’t enough, and he was wise to fold his tent and maintain his influence over the presidential campaign in Iowa.Who knows: Vilsack’s timing in getting out of the race may have been partially motivated by both the human and political considerations involved in letting his staff–including his small but much-praised policy staff–get on board with other campaigns. Particularly with Vilsack out, Iowa Democratic political experience, and Iowa Caucus experience, is worth its weight in gold to those campaigns who for offensive or defensive reasons need to do well in that state. And on down the road, Vilsack’s own support–determined, I strongly suspect from my own dealings with him in the past at the DLC, by honorably wonky policy considerations as much as by politics–might mean everything to a candidate whose tongue is lolling out for victory in Iowa.So while we bid farewell to Tom Vilsack’s candidacy for president, we almost certainly haven’t seen the end of his impact on the 2008 presidential campaign.

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