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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2005

No place like home for Iowa governor

DES MOINES - There is no house quite like this one in Des Moines, or maybe anywhere else. It's known as the "palace of the prairie," a mansion sitting regally on a pleasant little hill, full of the dark wood, red carpeting, and stained glass of Victorian excess.

Terrace Hill, as the dwelling is called, is a little out of place on a main thoroughfare in Iowa's biggest city, but then again, so are the elk and the caribou and the moose whose heads are fastened on the wall. They, like the man who inhabits this home, are not native to Iowa.

Wait a few minutes in the neighborhood in the late afternoon and there's a decent chance you might see the principal resident, Tom Vilsack, going on a little run. Wait for a few months and you might see him go on a different sort of run entirely.

Mr. Vilsack is the two-term Democratic governor of Iowa and he's thinking about running for president. Some days he thinks out loud about it, and if you are sitting in his office on the second floor of Terrace Hill, the official governor's mansion, you will swear that you are hearing him try out national campaign themes. Ordinary people don't use extraordinary phrases like "the restoring of the American community and the renewing of the American promise" in ordinary conversation, even here in politics-mad Iowa.

But take a look at my notes and there you'll see it, that remarkable phrase, tucked into a riff about the state of American politics. You hear a line like that and you know that a man who isn't running for re-election as governor is not going to let it go to waste. He's going to use it, the way Nelson Rockefeller, another governor with his eyes on the White House, once used "the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God," a ridiculous phrase from another age rendered all the more antiquarian in this era by its relentless male character.

No one knows for sure whether Mr. Vilsack, who is 54 years old, is going to run for president. He clearly doesn't know himself. But even his rivals acknowledge that the man is smarter than almost anyone they know and speaks better than almost anyone they know.

Plus he has the discipline of the Iowa farmer, though not only is he not from Iowa, he isn't a farmer either.

"When he ran for governor, a lot of people thought he had no chance," says Rob Tully, a former Democratic state chair who was running for Congress in 1998, when Mr. Vilsack first ran for governor. "There were many nights we'd share the dais and I'd watch him and think: When he's going forward and is focused, there's no way to stop this guy."

He would start a race from its starting place, which is no small advantage. Though reared in Pittsburgh, Mr. Vilsack's job as governor of Iowa gives him a strong position in the Iowa caucuses. A dozen years ago Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa had the same advantage, and as a result many contenders decided not to contest the state, rendering its caucuses all but meaningless. Mr. Vilsack and his advisers don't think that would happen this time, especially since Paul Tsongas and Bob Kerrey said later that abstaining from Iowa was a mistake.

This would be the ultimate Iowa-is-it candidacy; if he stumbles here he's not going to spend even a half hour in New Hampshire after the caucuses. But nobody gets into a presidential race worrying about what happens if the bottom falls out. Those kind of worriers never get in at all.

Mr. Vilsack has his story ready, a narrative about coming to a teeny Iowa town and setting down roots, and then moving up to the governor's office and presiding over the fastest-growing economy in the United States (in part because the cities are being rebuilt with gaming money) and showing some progress of reversing the Iowa curse, the brain-drain among the young.

All that plus "the restoring of the American community and the renewing of the American promise." But first Mr. Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council and a past chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, believes the Democrats need to get a reshaped and recharged message. "The problem with today's Democratic Party," he says, using the phrase that opens almost every conversation in party circles, "is that every candidate who gets the nomination has to define himself because the Democrats don't have an immediate brand the way the Republicans do."

That's where "community" comes in. "There's a Republican theory that this country was great because of self-reliant, rugged individuals who made it on their own," says Mr. Vilsack, governor of a state whose residents sometimes brag about being self-reliant, rugged individuals who made it on their own.

Pardon the interruption. He goes on: "But there's also the pillar of community. I don't mean only government; it can be a church or a small town that rallies to help a family. That sense of community is one of our values and it is just as powerful as the flag and the family and the phrases the Republicans use."

That's as good a start on a stump speech as any. In the meantime, contenders like former Sen. John Edwards, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico are flocking to Iowa. Mr. Vilsack has a big advantage over them all, and over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

He's already here.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at:

dshribman@post-gazette.com



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