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First glance


From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, and Jennifer Colby.
Gov. Mitt Romney (R) is signing up high-caliber advisors and staff.  Gov. George Pataki (R) was just in Iraq.  Sen. Barack Obama (D) is about to do Leno, address an evangelical conference on AIDS, and publicly take another AIDS test.  But one presidential candidate is stepping forth this morning to do what no other has done: actually articulate his vision for the country and his case for why he should be elected. 

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) needs the attention he hopes to gain by being the first to dive into the 2008 pool.  Up until now, his biggest national role has been as chair of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, a role that comes with a certain level of cachet, thanks to predecessor Bill Clinton, but is more likely to yield him policy advisors and white papers than campaign contributions and votes.

Now retiring after two terms as governor, Vilsack will formally announce his bid in his adopted hometown of Mount Pleasant this morning.  He'll then embark on a tour that will take him to Concord, NH; his original hometown of Pittsburgh; Des Moines, where his campaign HQ is located; Las Vegas; and Columbia, SC.  The stop in Pittsburgh reflects how Vilsack plans to highlight his life story as an orphan with an adoptive mother who was an alcoholic, a story that, in the past, he's been somewhat modest about telling.  The zig-zagging across the country reflects the new reality of a Democratic presidential nominating calendar that includes a second-in-the-nation caucus in Nevada. 

In addition to the hurdles that most candidates face, such as raising tens of millions of dollars just to be considered competitive and finding ways to capture voters' imaginations, Vilsack faces a particular burden: He has to do especially well in his home state of Iowa, while still arguing (for the sake of his state as well as his own prospects) that the caucuses will be a real race.  "What's a win" for him? asks John Lapp, a former top operative for both Vilsack and Rep. Dick Gephardt, who faced a somewhat similar challenge as an early favorite in Iowa.  "How do you define a win?"  A summer 2006 Des Moines Register poll showed Vilsack placing an unimpressive fourth.  Then, beyond managing expectations for his Iowa showing, Vilsack must prove that he can do well in the subsequent early states.

On the other hand, as Lapp points out, "there's always room for a governor."  Previous Democratic governors who won the presidency seemingly came out of nowhere at this same point in the cycle.  Jimmy Carter and Clinton both were governors who ran as Washington insurgents and had outside-the-Beltway campaign teams.  Beyond Vilsack, the only other governors or former governors in the nascent Democratic field are Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Evan Bayh of Indiana, both of whom can be tied to Washington.

As a gifted public speaker who rarely uses a text, another special challenge for Vilsack that may be in evidence during this announcement tour and in the months to follow will be the challenge of delivering the same speech over and over again.  Lapp compares Vilsack to Robert Redford's character in "The Candidate," whose instinct is to speak off the cuff and who becomes increasingly frustrated with the repetitiveness of that staple of campaign life, the stump speech.  At the same time, Lapp says, he sees "a hungering for an authentic candidate" like Vilsack.  Vilsack's image might benefit by comparison to that of the more cautious Sen. Hillary Clinton (D).

Another big speech coming today is outgoing Republican National Committee chair Ken Mehlman's address to the GOP governors gathered in Miami, which will be Mehlman's first big speech since the party took its beating in the midterms.  The theme of the speech, based on an advance text, is that Democrats didn't win the election so much as Republicans lost it, in part because they dropped the mantle of reform and because of Iraq.  Per the text, Mehlman will say that "we cannot ignore the reality of a wartime election," which historically has produced losses for the incumbent president's party.  He'll add that while he believes that this is "an ideological struggle in which we must prevail," it does not "change the fact that the Iraq war does make today's politics difficult."  That's quite a shift from Bush advisors' firm belief since 2001 that national security issues are their key to election victories. 

Mehlman also will say point-blank that "there is room for improvement in our ground operations."  But, he will emphasize, Republicans must recommit "ourselves to be the party of reform."  "Power does corrupt," he will say.  "If there are Republicans for whom influence or power or money have become more important than serving the public and the nation, then let me make it perfectly clear: we don't want you."