WASHINGTON – Out of cash and barely a blip in the early polls, Tom Vilsack quit the Democratic presidential contest Friday, a move that ultimately might prove more influential than his ill-fated decision to run, party strategists said.
The former Iowa governor’s pullout removes a cloud over his home-state caucuses. Starting in 1976, the winning candidate in Iowa has gone on to the Democratic nomination in every campaign except two – and one of those was in 1992, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin ran and other Democrats bypassed the state.
With Vilsack out, “There’s no hometown favorite,” said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist who so far is unaligned for 2008. The Democratic contenders, she said, “have no excuse any more. They have to prove themselves.”
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, and Barack Obama, of Illinois, have emerged as early favorites nationally, although not necessarily in Iowa. Former Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina, who nearly won the caucuses four years ago, has worked the state aggressively and led in recent public polling there, which showed Vilsack trailing in third or fourth place.
Vilsack said the Iowa polls were a factor but that “money and only money” lay behind his decision to quit.
He said his campaign, which raised $1.1 million late last year and an undisclosed amount since, is in debt. Candidates will have to raise “tens of millions of dollars,” he said, if many of the largest states, including California, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas, move their delegate contests to the first Tuesday in February.
A rush of big states to the start of the primary season, designed to give them more influence in choosing a nominee, will have the effect of putting “a significant premium (on winning Iowa a few weeks earlier),” said Vilsack, whose judgment is widely shared by Democratic strategists.
Democrats said Vilsack’s withdrawal is a potential opportunity for his former rivals, including Clinton, whose organization is said to need beefing up in Iowa. In addition to operating seven campaign offices around the state, Vilsack had attracted dozens of the state’s most talented organizers and endorsements from more than 1,150 activists.
Gordon Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer and former state party chairman, said Obama was the first to call, but he said he’d take his time choosing another candidate.
Never more than a long-shot, Vilsack is the latest casualty of the torrid early ‘08 competition. Other Democratic dropouts in recent months: Sens. Evan Bayh, of Indiana, and Russ Feingold, of Wisconsin, and former Gov. Mark Warner, of Virginia.