Presidential candidate Tommy Thompson said Wednesday that he has a three-step plan to create stability in Iraq, including allowing the Iraqi government to vote on whether the United States should keep its troops there.

"I'm confident they will, but if they vote yes, it will immediately give a degree of legitimacy for America being there," he said. "And if they do vote no — they don't want us there — we should get out."

Thompson, a former Wisconsin governor who was health and human services secretary during President Bush's first term, talked about his plan during his first formal presidential campaign stop in his home state. He formally announced Sunday on "This Week" on ABC that he is seeking the Republican nomination for president.

Thompson described himself as the only candidate with a commonsense approach to Iraq.

He said he would work with Iraqi leaders to form 18 self-governing provinces that would operate under a national government, just like in the U.S.

"Then what would happen is the Shiites would elect Shiite governments, Sunnis would elect Sunni government, Kurds would elect Kurd governments and individuals would gravitate to those territories that are controlled and ruled by their religious bureaucracy," he said.

He also would encourage the Iraqi government to give each citizen a stake in the nation's oil reserves. He proposed sending one third of oil revenues to a centralized federal government, one third to the 18 territories, and one third to "every man, woman and child in Iraq."

"We must give the Iraqi people a stake in their nation and stability in their future," Thompson said.

He spoke to about 1,000 people, mostly students, Wednesday morning at the Tommy G. Thompson Athletic Center at Messmer High School, a Catholic school involved in the pioneering voucher program that Thompson helped create as governor. It allows low income families in Milwaukee to send their children to private schools at state expense.

Thompson left the Bush administration in 2005 and established his presidential exploratory committee in December to raise money and gauge support. Since then, he has lagged behind better-known rivals, like former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

On Sunday, the 65-year-old proclaimed himself the "reliable conservative" in the race.

He has previously said he didn't mind being "the dark horse candidate."

On Wednesday, Thompson said Washington Republicans have "lost their way" by spending taxpayers money irresponsibly even as a "sagging" health care system threatens the economy.

"They tried to spend like Democrats, and voters saw through the act," he said.

Thompson has focused his strategy on Iowa, which holds the nation's first caucuses for presidential nominees. He has made weekly visits to the state and sought to make the case that it will take a candidate who can carry the Midwest to win the nomination.

Thompson spent 14 years as governor of Wisconsin, pushing for an overhaul of the state's welfare laws and championing Milwaukee's school choice, or voucher, program.

In 2006, he briefly toyed with the idea of running for governor but in the end decided against it. He had considered running for president in 2000 but decided he lacked support.