The parade begins

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack Sunday became the first announced Democratic presidential candidate to campaign in Nevada, which will hold the second event of the 2008 nominating contest.

Vilsack announced his candidacy Nov. 30. He visited Las Vegas on Dec. 3, but he made it clear that he still assigns primacy to his home state and to New Hampshire.

“It’s important for the people of Iowa and New Hampshire to know that we’re going to spend a lot of time in both of those states,” Vilsack said in Las Vegas.

Nevada was inserted into the first rank of caucuses and primaries by the Democratic National Committee, which gave Nevada’s Democratic Party permission to hold the second caucuses, after Iowa, in January 2008. That would also place Nevada in front of the first presidential primary election in New Hampshire.

Primaries are direct elections. Caucuses are local neighborhood meetings where residents of each election precinct meet with their neighbors at public halls like schools or convention centers, voting for their presidential choices and sending delegates to the Democratic county convention.

Iowa has been an attention-getting first caucus state since 1972. New Hampshire has had a primary for 90 years but its first-in-the-nation role of thinning out the field of candidates began in 1952.

Vilsack invited Nevadans to Iowa to learn how to put on caucuses.

“What Nevada doesn’t want is to have a situation where they don’t do it very well,” he said.

While Vilsack campaigned as the first announced candidate, unannounced candidates plotted their moves, and political reporters around the nation scrutinized their plotting.

The fact that Vilsack is governor of the traditional first caucus state introduces an unusual element into presidential politics. Vilsack will be expected to win his home state (while other candidates compete for second place) but will not gain much credit for winning since it will not show his vote getting ability nationally. So a Vilsack win in Iowa would then heighten the importance of the Nevada caucuses.

On the other hand, if he lost his home caucuses, it would diminish Nevada’s ability to narrow the field and might even effectively end the Democratic race, since defeating Vilsack on his home turf would give the winner—whoever he or she might be—a giant-killer image. That would cast Nevada into insignificance. DePauw University’s Ken Bode has pointed out that John Kerry essentially won the Democratic race in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. No other candidate could get any traction after that.

But other candidates may not take on Vilsack on his home field. Ward Sloane of CBS reported on Nov. 29, “Big-time Iowans say that so far, she [Hillary Clinton] hasn’t contacted anyone in the state about 2008. ‘Why should she run here? She runs the risk of losing to Vilsack, and if you’re Hillary Clinton, you can’t afford to lose to anyone,’ said one activist. ‘She’d be better off saying that Tom Vilsack is a good man, he deserves the support of his home state and then she can double her time’ in New Hampshire and Nevada and South Carolina (the next three states on the 2008 calendar).”

“If she can opt out of Iowa, that allows her to plow her mass market media dollars into Las Vegas and the rest of Nevada,” speculated Tim Dickinson of Rolling Stone. “If she takes the Silver State, she could roll into New Hampshire, where geography is already her friend, the prohibitive frontrunner.”

In New Hampshire, meanwhile, Rep. James Splaine has introduced a measure in the state legislature to beef up the secretary of state’s ability to reschedule the presidential primary election on a moment’s notice. Secretary of State Bill Gardner has made it clear that he considers leapfrogging Nevada to regain New Hampshire’s second in the nation status very much a possibility, in spite of the Democratic National Committee’s prohibition on states holding “similar” elections earlier than Nevada.

“I want to make sure that we put in the statute that the secretary of state has the authority to interpret the terminology of a ‘similar election’ in any way he or she wants to,” Splaine told the Manchester Union Leader’s John DiStaso.

Vilsack’s trip to Nevada gave the state a taste of what lies ahead in the public spotlight. His brief visit generated a Google news page count of 116 news stories containing the terms Vilsack and Nevada, from the UNLV Yell to the Washington Post.

In Vilsack’s home state, the Des Moines Register’s Thomas Beaumont reported, “Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack jetted Sunday from his home in the first presidential caucus state to what is scheduled to be the second, touching down briefly in Nevada as he resumed his campaign announcement tour. While tagging Nevada, the new player in the early nominating sweepstakes, Democrat Vilsack also took pains to signal to party activists in Iowa and New Hampshire that he will honor their traditions as leadoff states.”