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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

A Low-Key Iowa Governor Receives the V.P. Treatment

Tom Vilsack, a fresh face with a dramatic life story, is on Kerry's short list for running mate.

June 14, 2004|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Here's the thing about a vice presidential nomination. You're not supposed to look like you're pursuing it. It's considered best to lie low and let the job come to you.

So when Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack -- one of the top prospects to join Sen. John F. Kerry on the Democratic ticket -- came to San Francisco last week for a biotechnology conference, he relentlessly maintained just one identity, as governor of a small Midwestern state.

On the floor of the Moscone Convention Center, a Japanese trade representative yakked to Vilsack about his chances of making it to Washington. The governor's response: He couldn't wait to see the booths featuring Japanese biotech firms.

At a breakfast meeting, a reporter looked at the crowded room and said that people must have wanted to catch a glimpse of a vice presidential candidate.

"Oh," Vilsack quipped, "is Dick Cheney going to be here?"

And at a nighttime cocktail party for Iowa expatriates, the home folks were free to spin out Washington fantasies and Beltway dreams. The governor, however, aw-shucksed his way free of all the speculation.

"It's not about me," he told one woman. "It's about Iowa."

Thomas J. Vilsack holds the distinction of being perhaps the least known of the noncandidate-candidates being seriously scrutinized by the Kerry campaign as a potential vice presidential running mate.

Only Vilsack, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina are known to be on the Kerry short list -- subject to painstaking reviews of both their personal and political records.

So, why Vilsack?

Allies suggest he would be a bright and articulate spokesman for Democrats, a fresh face to inspire some media buzz but not so sparkling (like the glib and handsome Edwards) as to steal the limelight from Kerry.

He also has the sort of dramatic biography that television and newspaper reporters love: orphaned at birth, then adopted as an infant by a well-to-do Pittsburgh couple. He managed to transcend physical abuse by his alcoholic mother to build a successful career in law and politics.

"He has a great personal story -- a difficult childhood he overcame," said Lisette Lehman, a onetime Iowan who greeted Vilsack at the San Francisco cocktail party last week. "And being from the Midwest, that might be a nice balance with Kerry being from the East and from a different background."

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A somewhat hulking man who played high school football, Vilsack, 53, has sloping shoulders and thick fingers. He is soft-spoken but assertive.

Kerry is said to like the former lawyer and small-town mayor. They share a passion for the details of public policy. And the Vilsacks won a place in Kerry's heart in January.

Just days before balloting in the Iowa caucuses, Iowa First Lady Christie Vilsack strode onto the snowy steps of the state Capitol in Des Moines and said she trusted Kerry to keep America safe. The endorsement was widely seen in Iowa as helping the Massachusetts senator come from behind to win.

Another contender for the vice presidential nomination now says privately that Vilsack might be the favorite because of his small-town charm and his amiable relationship with the presumptive presidential nominee. Unlike Gephardt and Edwards, he would offer the ticket outside-the-Beltway balance. One of Vilsack's aides confided that he thought that the selection had narrowed to his boss and Edwards.

But all that does not change the fact that Vilsack's name and face are a mystery to most Americans. His state, assuming he can deliver it, offers only seven electoral votes.

Perhaps most importantly, Vilsack has limited foreign policy experience. At a time when the U.S. is still at war in Iraq and concerned about the threat of terrorism at home, Kerry may opt for a partner with a more worldly resume.

Only Kerry and one or two close advisors have any idea who might be chosen to help the presumptive nominee take on President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. Dozens of candidates have been mentioned; none officially ruled out.

Besides a sudden platform on the national stage, a vice presidential nomination would provide Vilsack with a heaping helping of derision from his Republican opponents. They would likely attack his proposal this year to increase taxes -- on cigarettes and on some services that don't fall under the Iowa state sales tax.

And his plan to recruit 310,000 foreign workers to Iowa -- because state unemployment is now less than 4% -- might also draw criticism.

Democrats, in contrast, would stress Vilsack's successes as governor: lowering public school class sizes, making more children eligible for healthcare and promoting economic development through the Iowa Values Fund.

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