MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa – Governor Tom Vilsack (D-Iowa) became the first pol to pony up to the 2008 Presidential Potluck. Unfortunately, we can't make out what dish he brought. The two-term governor is relatively well-liked in his home state, enjoying a 58 percent approval rating in Survey USA's most recent poll. But the numbers of the past year are hardly stratospheric in comparison with his gubernatorial cohort. In fact, Vilsack ranks 24th in the November 20th edition, far behind popular Red State Democratic governors such as Wyoming's Dave Freudenthal, Oklahoma's Brad Henry, Arizona's Janet Napolitano, Montana's Brian Schweitzer, and potential primary rival Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
Clearly, Vilsack has a great deal of work to do in his home state, before he can even consider becoming a serious contender in Nevada, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.
From a branding perspective, Vilsack's team needs to build a strategy that defines who he is, what he's planning to do, how he's different, and why this should matter to Democratic primary voters. His announcement speech offered us no clue beyond the an amorphous trope about "The courage to create change," a few ethanol-tinged nods to the technology of energy independence, a more thoughtful brand of foreign policy – and allusions to America as the land of opportunity. As potluck dishes go, Vilsack's announcement was one of those casseroles that looks okay, but needs a few dollops of salt, pepper, and four dashes of Lawry's seasoning to make up for a lack of any identifiable meat.
If Vilsack wants to be a contender, he should make sure that his kick-off events in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Nevada are big, old-fashioned country barbecues with enough gut-busting protein to build some muscle on his campaign, enough red-hot chili to make the voters need an ice-cold brew, and enough apple pie to make supporters out of the staunchest naysayers. Potlucks that leave voters asking, "Where's the beef?" aren't going to cut it in what will certainly be a crowded Democratic picnic.
To The Brandwagon, Vilsack's inaugural website is the best metaphor for his announcement day – lots of links to Internet "communities," surrounding a blurry YouTube screenshot – and not a single issue stance to be found for miles. When two-term governors show up to a potluck, they ought to bring more than a side dish.