DES MOINES, Iowa – He may be Iowa's governor, but Tom Vilsack's home-field advantage isn't enough to force rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination to cede him the game — far from it.
Not only won't Vilsack get a pass in Iowa's 2008 Democratic caucuses, but party leaders are bending over backward to keep the start-off of the contest evenhanded, key activists and strategists said.
It will not, they say, be another 1992, the year Tom Harkin — the Hawkeye State's popular U.S. senator — ran for president. Harkin's Democratic rivals skipped the Iowa caucuses, arguing that it wasn't possible to compete with him on his home turf.
As a result Harkin won Iowa easily, but got none of the caucuses' famous momentum and media attention. He wound up quickly leaving the Democratic race in which Bill Clinton later prevailed.
Vilsack, who is leaving office in January after two terms,is to make a formal announcement about a presidential bid Thursday and then begins a five-state tour.
"The game is on and I think people such as John Edwards, Evan Bayh and others have spent enough time here and think they can run a successful campaign, even with a former Iowa governor running against them," said Iowa Democratic Chairman Rob Tully.
He added, "We have to declare that the party is neutral and we have to provide an open and honest forum and election process," Tully said.
Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, and Bayh, former Indiana governor and now senator, are among roughly a dozen Democrats who have traveled to Iowa as they weigh potential presidential bids.
The size of the field reflects the wide open nature of the race. Although Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York is considered the frontrunner for the nomination should she run, her advantage is far from unassailable.
Vilsack is under no illusions that he'll avoid competition in his home state, aides said.
"I think it's clear there are several candidates who have run in Iowa before, there are candidates who have been making repeated trips to the state," said Jeff Link, a Vilsack strategist. "They are going to compete with everything they've got in Iowa."
Iowa's caucuses traditionally launch the presidential nominating process, and Vilsack's decision complicates the outlook.
"When Harkin ran, they all backed off and didn't even make the effort, but that is not happening this time," said Tom Courtney, a Democratic state Senator from Burlington. "I've talked to a couple of the candidates and they aren't backing off at all."
A poll published by the Des Moines Register last summer showed Vilsack trailing Clinton, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Edwards.
"This time around the race is wide open, and Vilsack doesn't poll that strongly compared to the other candidates," said Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford. "He's just at the beginning of this process, while most of these other folks have been through here before. Iowans aren't giving any special leg up to their own governor."
Veteran Democratic activist Phil Roeder — a former spokesman for the state Democratic Party — also said this election cycle is far different from 1992.
"The calendar is a lot more compressed and I don't think anyone running for the White House can afford to skip any state in the first few weeks," Roeder said.
Des Moines lawyer and lobbyist George Appleby, who is leaning toward backing Illinois Sen. Barack Obama if he runs, said most Democrats are bent upon winning after losing two close elections in a row. Electability will be key, he added. "The Democrats are going to be so hungry and do not want to blow this one."
Roeder said even if it's assumed that Vilsack will win, the real winner in the expectation game might be whoever comes in second.
"There are almost two campaigns going on," Roeder said. "One is where does Vilsack fit in all this, and the other is who is next in line on caucus night."
Vilsack's presence in the race puts enormous pressure on Iowa Democratic Party leaders, who understand that tilting toward Vilsack could render the caucuses meaningless, surrendering their treasured role as a key step in the presidential season.
Every four years, other states seek to challenge Iowa's leadoff role, and being seen as favoring the hometown candidate would give critics all the ammunition they need to end Iowa's status.