Endorse or not endorse, that is the question on the mind Sen. Tom Harkin. The Iowa political player finds himself now the only highly visible in-state politico in play among Democratic presidential hopefuls after Gov. Tom Vilsack announced he would not endorse anyone prior to the Iowa caucuses in two weeks.
Vilsack’s decision is a huge blow to the campaign of Sen. John Kerry. “We had targeted Vilsack as the guy who could get us perhaps to No. 2 in the caucus voting if we got his backing,” says a Kerry insider. “We put a lot on the table to get him, but frankly, when you’re not the frontrunner it’s hard to make promises that appear keep-able, particularly when you’re asking them to go out on a limb.”
Rumors on the ground in Cedar Rapids had Vilsack being offered everything from Secretary of Agriculture to placement on the short list for the vice presidency and a leading role at the convention. Whatever was actually offered apparently wasn’t enough — or appeared uncertain enough given Kerry’s position in the polls — to sway Vilsack from putting his own political reputation on the line.
“I suspect that Senator Harkin is being offered similar inducements,” says a Howie Dean for president staffer on the campaign trail.
Harkin, according to one of his staffers in Washington, has been speaking frequently with Senate colleagues Kerry, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman, as well as longtime acquaintance Rep. Dick Gephardt. Harkin’s backing is seen by those chasing Dean as critical to achieving a legitimate shot at either making a last minute play for the top slot in the caucuses or grabbing the second-place position. While Dean has reached out to Harkin, he has been using supporters in-state and out — read Al Gore and Bill Bradley — to press his case.
Harkin hasn’t tipped his hand beyond saying he will make a decision next week. By that time, his staffer says, it should be clearer whether any other candidate in the race has any momentum to bypass Dean. “If I had to make a guess right now,” says the Harkin staffer, “I’d say he remains neutral absent a big push by another candidate.”
Idling in neutral seems to be the position of choice for a lot of Democrats around the country. While Howie Dean is racking up endorsements, his competitors haven’t been able to match him with like support. “Everywhere we go, we’re being told, ‘We’re going to hold off a bit longer to see where this thing goes,” says a John Edwards staffer. “It’s tough to hear that when we see Dean getting big endorsements from folks confident enough in him to jump on his bandwagon.”
It’s particularly tough for Edwards, because it appears that of the contenders to Dean, he appears to be gaining some traction in Iowa and may be the surprise candidate there.
Recall that Edwards was one of the first candidates to hit the state more than a year ago. Now, with a re-tooled stump speech, and some favorable media, Edwards is drawing big crowds at his in-state appearances.
“These aren’t just big crowds. These are enthusiastic crowds,” says a reporter on the ground. “We’ve been seeing a certain amount of voter fatigue in the past week with lower turnout, lower energy, people not asking as many questions in public forums. Edwards is getting the exact opposite. He may be on to something.”