DES MOINES, Iowa – George W. Bush has barely had time to unpack his cowboy boots and already the search is on among Democrats for the next person to take up residence at the White House.
One name that keeps showing up on short lists for the presidential race in 2004 is Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat whose tireless efforts on behalf of Al Gore's White House bid helped deliver Iowa to Gore in November. Vilsack's success in winning his battleground state for the Democrats did not go unnoticed.
"I think that every governor in America looks at Jimmy Carter, looks at Bill Clinton, looks at George W. Bush and says: 'Hmmm. Maybe I could do that,'" said David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register. And Valsick himself has said he thinks governors "are great candidates for president."
Vilsack possesses the hard-luck, rags to riches history that may appeal to important working-class voters. Left on the doorstep of a Pennsylvania orphanage as an infant, Vilsack overcame the trauma of being adopted and raised by an alcoholic, abusive mother to ascend to the Iowa State House.
But in a recent interview with Fox News, Vilsack said he was not considering a presidential bid, and said he wasn't sure he was even qualified for the job.
"I don't know (about running for president)," Vilsack told Fox News. "I say that because I've only been governor for two years. I think that, frankly, I need a little bit more experience ... or anyone would need a little bit more experience than being governor for two years."
Vilsack's critics would agree. Political observers in Iowa say that before Vilsack could have a shot at the White House, he first has to get re-elected governor in 2002 and fix the state's leaky budget.
The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., gave Vilsack a grade of "F" for his handling of Iowa's finances.
"He's proposed approximately $285 million in budgetary cuts because of overspending in the first year of his term," said Iowa GOP Chairman Chuck Larson.
Still, potential opponents worry about Vilsack. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., a possible presidential candidate himself, has been inquiring about Vilsack's White House ambitions, while Iowa's Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has publicly wondered whether Vilsack will challenge him in 2004.
Meanwhile, Vilsack said he has not even decided if he will run for governor again.
"We haven't made that decision and probably won't until the summer," said Vilsack, who said he will sit down with his wife Christie to decide. But Vilsack's public balking at committing to serve another full term as governor has only fueled speculation in Iowa that he is using the Governor's Mansion as a stepping stone from the orphanage to the White House.
— Fox News' Steve Brown contributed to this report.