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Published: Thursday, 12/14/2006

Things to know about Tom Vilsack

WASHINGTON - Last week, during a washingtonpost.com chat, a reader in Orange, Calif., asked: "What about Vilsack? He's an experienced governor/executive, wins as an underdog at the ballot box, after being ignored by the press. He's Midwestern, he's a centrist, and he isn't Hillary Clinton. Are you not mentioning him in the MSM (mainstream media) because he hasn't got the money of Hillary Clinton?"

As it happened, just the previous week I had interviewed Democratic Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for the ninth or tenth time in the last few years, and was planning to write about him soon.

But the urgency became more apparent with two developments over the weekend: The absolute flood of press and television publicity for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's visit to New Hampshire and a conversation with two generally well-informed relatives, each of whom responded to my mention of Mr. Vilsack with the same question: "Who's Vilsack?"

This is hardly the first time that I have been reminded that people of high standing in the political community can be unfamiliar to most voters. When Richard Lugar of Indiana, for two decades the leading Republican Senate voice on foreign policy and a widely admired statesman, entered the 1996 Republican presidential race, no one in New Hampshire seemed to have heard of him.

The reason in both cases is that the national political press corps does not see its responsibility to spotlight all the people vying for the presidential nominations. Rather, our tendency is to narrow the field as quickly as possible and define who we think the "serious" candidates may be.

These early judgments are based on polls, financial reports, and what I would call the "buzz" factor of novelty or excitement. But polls are unreliable when those surveyed know almost nothing about the candidates. Financial reports are more trustworthy, but as the generously backed John Connally, the former treasury secretary, and Phil Gramm, the Texas senator, both proved, are not necessarily predictive of political success.

So that leaves reporters searching for each season's Mr. or Ms. Excitement - the glamorous, idiosyncratic figure with that elusive "something" ordinary politicians lack. On the Republican side this year, you have John McCain, former POW and hero of the "Straight Talk Express," and Rudy Giuliani, Mr. 9/11 and "America's Mayor." For the Democrats, it's been Hillary for so long that no one even uses her other names, and now Barack Obama, the charismatic young black man who has shown he can draw huge crowds everywhere.

But charisma has its limits. While Bill Clinton sailed past obstacles on the strength of his personality, the stardom surrounding Howard Dean at the beginning of 2004 was brought crashing down by the dogged opposition of John Kerry.

For the press, the lesson is pretty obvious: Instead of prematurely anointing front-runners, we might better serve the public by examining the full range of the presidential field.

For example, Tom Vilsack. Here are a few things to know. He is retiring voluntarily this month after serving for eight years as governor of Iowa. He was born into an orphanage, was adopted by a blue-collar couple in Pittsburgh, saw his mother battle for years against drug and booze addictions, was raised by a single father and eventually saw his mother, strengthened by religion, return to the family and to health.

After college and law school, he moved to his wife's hometown of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, practiced law with his father-in-law, was elected mayor, then state senator, and finally governor, each time against favored opponents.

As governor, Mr. Vilsack has followed the Clinton model. He has pressed a progressive agenda, emphasizing education, health care, energy conservation, and economic development. Like Mr. Clinton, he was a leader in the bipartisan National Governors Association, and was trusted by colleagues of both parties.

As the current chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, the caucus of Clinton moderates, he has worked with some success to bridge the gap with organized labor, whose leaders often saw the DLC as their bitter rival in intra-party debates. With strong union support at home, Mr. Vilsack helped heal that division.

The payoff for all this came last month. Iowa, which had gone for President Bush in 2004, elected Chet Culver, a Democrat, as Mr. Vilsack's successor, and saw the Democrats win two more U.S. House seats and capture both houses of the state Legislature.

That is, to put it mildly, not too shabby. Mr. Vilsack is only one of a dozen "1 percenters" in current Democratic and Republican polls. They are 1 percenters mostly because nobody knows who they are - or what they've done. That's more the fault of the media than the politicians, and we know what the remedy would be. Some serious, solid reporting, instead of star-gazing.

David Broder is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.



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