Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack chose the small town where his political career began to open his long-shot presidential campaign, pledging to make the U.S. "a beacon of hope" for all the world.
"I am running for president to replace the America of today with the hope of tomorrow and guarantee every American their birthright - opportunity," Vilsack said in remarks prepared for delivery Thursday.
Thirteen months before the first votes in the nomination process, the wide-open race for the White House already has drawn the interest of nearly two dozen potential candidates. Aides to Vilsack said he needed to move quickly to begin building name identification; the two-term governor is little known outside Iowa.
Name recognition issue
After his announcement, Vilsack planned a five-state tour of several early voting states, including New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"America needs a president who builds and creates, who makes our country more secure," according to the planned speech. "Our country needs bold leadership if we are to be more secure here at home and throughout the world."
Vilsack this month was the first Democrat to establish a presidential campaign committee, giving him an early start on fundraising. He raised more than $6 million for his 2002 re-election bid, but that is just a fraction of the estimated $20 million political experts say presidential candidates will need to have in hand by June 2007.
The election will be the first in 80 years in which neither a sitting president nor vice president is in the early mix of candidates of either party.
Of the potential Democratic contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois are the best known. Other possible candidates include Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
Among Republicans, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani are the most prominent.
Moderate image, tough childhood
Vilsack cultivated a centrist image as governor, balancing the state's budget and resisting pressure to raise taxes. He also heads the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. But he has emphasized increased spending on such priorities as health care, education and economic development.
Beyond his record as governor, Vilsack has a compelling personal story he hopes will spark national interest in his candidacy. He was left as an infant at a Catholic orphanage in Pittsburgh and adopted by what he has described as a "troubled but loving family."
His parents were well-to-do and sent him to a private preparatory school. His mother was an alcoholic who beat him; his father suffered financial reversals.
Vilsack managed to transcend his difficult childhood and built a successful career in law and politics. He met his wife, Christie, in college in New York and they settled in her hometown of Mount Pleasant - population 8,700 - after he graduated from law school. He joined his father-in-law's law practice.
Then, in 1986, a disgruntled citizen burst into a Mount Pleasant city council meeting and opened fire, killing Mayor Ed King. Vilsack was elected mayor and faced the task of healing the close-knit community.
While Vilsack spelled out few specifics in his prepared text, he sought an upbeat tone.
"The courage to create change is what America has been and should be about - a beacon of hope and strength throughout the world," Vilsack said. "Today is only the beginning. I ask for your support and your vote. Together let us have the courage to create change in America."