SHOW: THE BELTWAY BOYS (18:21)
HEADLINE: Interview With Tom Vilsack
GUESTS: Tom Vilsack
BYLINE: Mort Kondracke, Fred Barnes
KONDRACKE: The Iowa caucuses are less than a year away, and several Democratic presidential candidates have made multiple trips to the Hawkeye State to test their messages and gauge support.
Joining us to handicap the field is a man who himself was once considered a potential presidential candidate, Iowa's Democratic governor, Tom Vilsack.
Thanks for joining us.
GOV. TOM VILSACK (D), IOWA: Oh, it's great to be on.
Well, the, the media conventional wisdom is that John Kerry is the national front runner. How'sareis he the front runner in Iowa?
VILSACK: I really don't think there is a front runner right now. Senator Kerry has obviously had a strong start. Dick Gephardt's got history on his side. A lot of folks are intrigued with John Edwards. Joe Lieberman has yet to be engaged. And Howard Dean has been quite strong.
So at this point in time, I wouldn't say there is a front runner.
BARNES: Well, Howard Dean is hot. I know he, he's thrilling Democratic groups around the country. What would he have to do to have a real breakthrough in Iowa next January?
VILSACK: Well, I think he's got to convince the folks that aren't traditionally aligned with labor organizations, teachers' associations, the kind of organized groups that know how to do this caucus game, I think he has to reach out to ordinary Democrats who are just interested in the process, much like Jimmy Carter did in 1976.
Howard's spent a lot of time here. He's got time to spend. And he's very passionate about his message, and that's intriguing to a lot of Democrats.
KONDRACKE: Well, once upon a time, there was a, quite a vigorous anti-nuclear free peace movement in, in Iowa. Now, is, is it strong enough to, to pick Dean up and carry him along and give him the kind of organizational oomph that somebody might have, say, from the AFL-CIO?
VILSACK: I really don't think so. I think it's got to extend beyond that. I think Howard's got to have a message that resonates about a vision for a better America, whether it's in health care, which is an area that he knows a lot about, or in education, something that captures the imagination of Iowans. I don't think the peace issue is one that's going to carry him s far as he needs to go.
KONDRACKE: Do you think he does have, do, does he have a, a fuller message that is, that is resonating, or is his support mainly based on opposition to the war?
VILSACK: I think it's a little early to say that his message is resonating with Iowans. I think people are intrigued with it. He is one of those candidates who speaks about substantive issues, which is important. to Iowans.
What we're going to do is set up a process in which these candidates are going to be tested. We're going to have a health care forum, for example, in August, where all of the candidates, including President Bush, have been invited, so that we can flesh out and have a very serious conversation abut the issues that are very, very important to America.
BARNES: You mentioned Dick Gephardt's history in Iowa. He won the caucuses in 1988. Is he weaker, stronger? Where does he stand in Iowa today?
VILSACK: I think that folks are anxious to be supportive of Representative Gephardt, but I think that they have to be convinced that he can be a winning candidate nationally. So I think he's got to come into Iowa. I think he's got to make connections, again, with folks. And again, it's all about being able to paint a picture of how you're going to win and how you're going to take this country to a place where it needs to go.
KONDRACKE: Well, last time his strength, among other things, was among unions. Now, howare the, the United Auto Workers and the AFL-CIO out there ready to back him, or are they going to, are they going to hang back?
VILSACK: A lot of personal relationships with Representative Gephardt, but at this point in time, none of the local labor leaders have made a commitment. They're waiting for a signal from their national organizations. And again, I think it all comes back down to the critical issue that faces Democratic. We want a candidate who can win next November. And I think that's what labor organizations are looking for, is that winning candidate.
BARNES: You want a candidate who can beat President Bush. Now, he lost Iowa in 2000 by 4,000 votes. Since then, he's made Iowa practically a second home. I believe he came to Iowa eight times last year. How much stronger is he in Iowa now than he was in 2000?
VILSACK: Well, I think the president, with his support for ethanol, has captured the attention of a lot of Iowans. But there are some growing concerns about the president's domestic agenda in Iowa. We are very concerned about education funding, concerned about support for Medicaid and Medicare. We have a real problem with our Medicare system in our state, the reimbursement levels are so low that access to health care is being threatened.
And I think people are very concerned about what they perceive to be somewhat of a confusing message in terms of the international situation.
So I think the president's going to have to do some work in Iowa if he expects to be competitive again.
KONDRACKE: Now, in the, in the 2000 Democratic primaries, you stayed neutral. What is your plan for 2004? Might you endorse one of the Democratic candidates before it's over?
VILSACK: It's possible that I may do this. But at this point in time, what I'm interested in is making sure that I make myself available to the candidates to encourage them to have substantive conversations with Iowans. I think part of why we do what we do as a first-in-the-nation caucus is to basically make these guys and Carol Moseley-Braun be retail politics forretail politicians for a dayfor a month or two, discussing issues very substantively, so we can size these folks up.
And I think my job is to make sure that there forums and formats for them to do that.
BARNES: Governor, Democrats are divided on the question of President Bush's policy toward Iraq. Where do you stand?
VILSACK: Well, I think that I stand with most of the citizens of the state of Iowa. We are anxious to support our president in a difficult time, but we would be much more comfortable supporting him if the international community were also supporting him. We're looking for opportunities to avoid war if at all possible. And if war is the only answer, we hope that it's with a united front in the world community.
BARNES: Governor, thanks a lot. Loved having you on.
VILSACK: You bet.