WASHINGTON -- Out of cash and barely a blip in the early polls, Tom Vilsack quit the Democratic presidential contest yesterday, a move that might ultimately prove more influential than his ill-fated decision to run, party strategists said.
The former Iowa governor's pullout removes a cloud over his home-state caucuses. Starting in 1976, the winning candidate in Iowa has gone on to the Democratic nomination in every campaign except two - and one of those was in 1992, when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin ran and other Democrats bypassed the state.
With Vilsack out, "there's no hometown favorite" and the Democratic contenders "have no excuse any more. They have to prove themselves," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus, who is unaligned in the 2008 campaign.
Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois have emerged as early favorites nationally, though not necessarily in Iowa. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who nearly won the caucuses four years ago, has worked the state aggressively and led in recent public polling there, which showed Vilsack trailing in third or fourth place.
Vilsack said the Iowa polls were a factor but that "money and only money" lay behind his decision to quit.
He said his campaign, which raised $1.1 million late last year and an undisclosed amount since, is in debt.
Candidates will have to raise "tens of millions of dollars," he said, if many of the largest states, including California, Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Texas, move their delegate contests to the first Tuesday in February.
A rush of big states to the start of the primary season, designed to give them more influence in choosing a nominee, will have the effect of putting "a significant premium" on winning Iowa a few weeks earlier, said Vilsack, whose judgment is widely shared by Democratic strategists.
Democrats said Vilsack's withdrawal is a potential opportunity for his former rivals, including Clinton, whose organization is said to need beefing up in Iowa.
In addition to operating seven campaign offices around the state, Vilsack had attracted dozens of the state's most talented organizers and endorsements from more than 1,150 activists.
Gordon Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer and former state party chairman, said Obama was the first to call, but he said he would take his time choosing another candidate.
Never more than a long shot, Vilsack is the latest casualty of the torrid early 2008 competition. Other Democratic dropouts in recent months: Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia.
"I came up against something for the first time in my life that hard work and effort couldn't overcome," said Vilsack, less than three months after becoming the first Democrat to formally announce.
Vilsack, who ran as an outsider and said Congress should cut off funding for the Iraq war now, refused to endorse another candidate yesterday.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center underscored the difficulty that Vilsack faced in attracting early money, which often goes to candidates who have a national base or are thought to have a good chance of winning. The national survey, conducted Feb. 7 to 11, ranked him last, with only one in five Democratic voters saying they knew his name.
Few Americans are paying much attention to the race, according to the poll, in spite of the early campaign activity that has been driven by the celebrity of the leading contenders and their pursuit of campaign cash.
Democratic voters were more likely to be tuning in than Republicans, with 38 percent of liberal Democrats saying they had given the campaign a lot of thought, compared with 24 percent of conservative Republicans.
Asked if they could name a candidate they might support, less than half of the Democratic voters (46 percent), and less than a third of Republicans (29 percent), volunteered the name of a 2008 aspirant.
According to the Pew Center, the images of even the best-known candidates "are fairly thin" at this early stage.
When asked for one-word descriptions of the candidates, the responses for Clinton, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, also a Republican, largely reflected their national roles as former first lady, Vietnam POW and big-city mayor, respectively.
By contrast, Obama was mentioned for his brief time in the national arena, with words like "inexperience," "young" and "new" most frequently mentioned.
More Democrats said there was a good chance they will vote for Clinton (52 percent) than for Obama (41 percent). Clinton also ran better among older voters, while Obama showed more early appeal among independents, the poll found.
Among Republicans, where opinions appear to be less well-formed, voters were more likely to say there was a good chance or some chance they would vote for Giuliani, rather than for McCain, and the New Yorker also did slightly better among independents.
McCain did slightly better among Republican voters under age 30, even though he would be the oldest man ever to become president if he won.