DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.
A month after the midterm elections, the race for the presidency in 2008 is officially on. This week, Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate Majority Leader, confounded expectations and said he would not seek the Republican nomination. But on the Democratic side, two Midwesterners seemed to throw their hats in the ring. Aides said Indiana Senator Evan Bayh will make an announcement next week, and on Thursday, Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack declared his intention to seek the party's nomination. I spoke with Governor Vilsack earlier today.
So you're out of the gates early, the first Democrat to formally announce, and you've already stumped in New Hampshire, you're in Pittsburgh, you're in Des Moines, you're headed to South Carolina and Nevada next. Do you feel you had to do this to get attention in a Democratic field that potentially includes political heavyweights like Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards?
Governor TOM VILSACK (Democrat, Iowa): Well, my view about this is, is once you've made a decision, you might as well proceed to carry that decision out. There's no reason to hesitate or wait. I'm looking forward to having a very vigorous and rigorous debate. The more folks that are in this race, the better, so that the ideas that we talk about are bold and ideas that hopefully will help change the direction of this country.
ELLIOTT: Is it hard for a governor from Iowa to compete as far as fundraising? I mean, you have to have a lot of money these days to run for president.
Gov. VILSACK: You do, Debbie. But it's one contribution at a time, and I think our message of the courage to create change, talking about energy security, talking about healthcare security, talking about an America that's got a different attitude towards the rest of the world and a different position in Iraq I think will resonate with a lot of folks across this country, and I believe at the end of all of this we'll certainly be competitive in terms of raising the resources to get our message out.
ELLIOTT: Now, these are some of the same issues that we hear from New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. How do you distinguish yourself from her?
Gov. VILSACK: Well, the reality is, when I talk about issues concerning energy security, I can actually point to things we've actually done in Iowa. This isn't necessarily talking about what could happen in the future without any justification or foundation. These are things that I've been able to do in my state and I believe can be done in this country.
The same is true with healthcare. We are only one of two or three states that actually reduced the number of insured people, uninsured people last year, and I have, I think, a clear understanding of precisely what we need to do in terms of foreign policy because of my travels around the world to 22 different countries and my capacity as a commander in chief of 9,700 troops.
ELLIOTT: But there are those who would say that as governor, you really don't have foreign policy credentials. Your experience does not include making those kind of decisions, and we know that the war in Iraq and national security are two of the main issues that voters are concerned with.
Gov. VILSACK: Well, what's interesting about this, I think, is not so much the experience but your judgment. Take Senator McCain, for example. He has all the experience in the world, but I think he has very seriously faulty judgment on our next steps in Iraq. He is suggesting that we make a big mistake even bigger by adding more troops. My view is that we need to end the culture of dependency that we've created in Iraq by being there and putting our troops in harm's way for too long, which has prevented the Iraqi government from having to make the decisions that only they can make.
I think Senator McCain, war hero, certainly has a lot of experience. It isn't about experience. It's about judgment, who you have in the room making important decisions and how you go about making those decisions that matters.
ELLIOTT: Tell us the story of how you first came to elective office. It was as mayor of Mt. Pleasant, Iowa?
Gov. VILSACK: That's correct. Actually, 20 years ago this month Mayor Ed King was in a council meeting when an individual by the name of Davis walked into the council meeting with a loaded revolver and shot and killed the mayor and seriously wounded two council members. It was an enormous tragedy in a town of 8,000. And several months after that tragedy, the mayor's father, I.L.F. King, came into my law office and asked if I would consider running for mayor.
ELLIOTT: Now you were an attorney at the time. Had public office ever occurred to you before that moment?
Gov. VILSACK: I had worked very hard to help elect others and had never considered running for public office. Out of respect for Mr. King, I went home and talked to my family, and at the time our sons Jess and Doug were very young and I think it was Doug, the youngest, said, Don't do it because you're going to get hurt. And I didn't want my sons growing up thinking that public service was hurtful. I wanted to overcome that impression. So we made the decision as a family to run and unexpectedly won, served as mayor for a couple of terms and at the end of my second term, indicated to the community that I felt that it was appropriate for someone else to come on board. But no one ran and I was elected to a third term. I decided that this was headed down the path of a lifelong career and I ran for the state senate, won a race that I wasn't expected to win, served two terms as a state senator and then made the decision that I wanted to become the first Democratic governor elected in my state in 30 years, and ran, and again, not expected to win but ended up winning.
ELLIOTT: You seem to like that underdog position.
Gov. VILSACK: That's where I've been all my life. And you know, there are a lot more underdogs than there are top dogs. And I can relate to people who struggle, people who overcome adversity, people who are working every day to try to pursue a dream. I can relate to that because I've done that most of my life.
ELLIOTT: You know, Governor Vilsack, some people might think that being from Iowa, the first caucus state, that that would somehow give you a leg up here, but polls indicate that you are even the underdog among the Democratic voters there in Iowa. A Des Moines Register poll in the summer had you running fourth, with only 10 percent of those polled, behind Edwards, Clinton and Kerry. How do you overcome that?
Gov. VILSACK: People really didn't perceive me in June of this year as a presidential candidate. There had been no discussion of it. There had been no indication that I was interested in it. You know, you have to earn the support of Iowans. That's the way we are.
But you're right. The perception would be that I would start off with an advantage. That's actually not the case. I start off, as I've started every race I've ever been involved in, the underdog.
ELLIOTT: Tom Vilsack is the governor of Iowa and this week announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.
Thank you for talking with us.
Gov. VILSACK: Debbie, thank you.