MOUNT PLEASANT, IOWA — Gov. Tom Vilsack, launching an uphill bid for president, called Thursday for expanded healthcare and educational opportunities at home and a foreign policy aimed at mending alliances and lessening U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Speaking in the small town where he started his political career as mayor, Vilsack, 55, became the first Democrat to formally enter the 2008 race. He opened with a swipe at President Bush, denouncing his "divide-and-conquer" style and declaring the country "less safe than it was six years ago."
"Our way of life, our quality of life, our national security has been compromised ... by a national government that's been fiscally irresponsible," Vilsack said, "and by a country that has grown far too dependent on oil -- foreign oil from foreign countries, some of which despise us, harbor terrorists, but gladly take our money."
His remarks were broad in sweep and limited in detail, with a paragraph each devoted to healthcare, education, energy independence and foreign policy.
On the war in Iraq, Vilsack said, "We must take our troops out of harm's way and say to the Iraqis: 'It is your responsibility to protect your families and your communities.' "
The speech, lasting less than 20 minutes, reflected Vilsack's personality and governing style. It was deliberate and straightforward in content and delivery.
Strategists see Vilsack's life story as a major selling point, and he offered part of the narrative Thursday to the hundreds of friends and supporters who braved ice-slick highways to join him in the gymnasium at Iowa Wesleyan College.
Left on the steps of an orphanage in Pittsburgh, Vilsack endured a childhood marred by alcoholism, financial hardship and physical abuse. "I knew then, and I know today, what it's like to be alone and to feel as if you don't belong," he said.
Vilsack met his wife, Christie, at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. After graduation from Albany Law School, he moved to Mount Pleasant to practice law with his father-in-law. Active in the community -- Vilsack led the local Rotary Club and Chamber of Commerce -- he was recruited to run for mayor in 1986 when the incumbent was killed by a man angry over a sewage problem.
After two terms, Vilsack decided not to seek reelection. But enough voters in this heavily Republican town wrote in his name on their ballots that he was elected anyway. He went on to serve in the state Senate and, in 1998, was elected to the first of two terms as governor. Vilsack, who had pledged not to seek a third term, leaves office in January.
"He's been a reasonably successful governor," said politics professor Dennis Goldford of Drake University in Des Moines. "No huge enemies, no huge fans."
Faced with tough economic times early in his administration and a Republican Legislature throughout, Vilsack has made education, children's healthcare, and economic and cultural development his priorities. He stepped onto the national stage as head of the Democratic Governors Assn. and, more recently, led the Democratic Leadership Council -- a centrist group.
In 2004, Vilsack was one of three finalists to be Sen. John F. Kerry's vice presidential running mate. But the No. 2 slot went to former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who is likely to run for president in 2008 and has emerged as one of Vilsack's strongest opponents in Iowa.
A run for the White House will be a steep climb, Vilsack acknowledges. He registers barely a blip in national opinion surveys. And a Des Moines Register poll taken this summer in Iowa shows him fourth among Democratic presidential contenders. Ahead of him were Edwards, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Kerry.
About the best Vilsack can hope to do in the Iowa caucuses is avoid embarrassment and survive to compete elsewhere.
But Vilsack is accustomed to starting from behind: He overcame a 20-point deficit to win the primary in his first run for governor, and pulled out of an even bigger hole to beat his Republican foe and become Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years.
"I've always been an underdog and a long shot," he said.
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Thomas James Vilsack
Experience: Mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, 1987-1992; state senator, 1992-1998; governor of Iowa, 1998-present; practiced law in Mount Pleasant before becoming governor.
Education: Bachelor's degree, Hamilton College, 1972; law degree, Albany Law School, 1975
Family: Wife, Christie Vilsack; two adult sons, Jess and Doug
Source: Associated Press