Having served his none-too-subtle role in the grand scheme of the 2OO8 presidential competition — keeping as many Iowa Democrats as possible “locked up” until New York Senator Hillary Clinton got her campaign up and running in the first caucus state — former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack today announced his exit from the race for the Democratic nomination.

Vilsack launched his run early and made as much noise as could be expected from a nowhere-in-the-polls candidate with a vague message and even vaguer hopes of raising the funds needed to mount a truly national campaign. But his brief candidacy — which was quietly advised and encouraged by Democratic strategists with long and close ties to the Clinton camp — never really amounted to much more than a blocking move for the New York senator with whom he worked closely as a leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council centrist.

For his trouble, the Iowan will earn a little bit of speculation about his vice presidential prospects — nil. And, if Clinton actually wins the presidency, about his Cabinet prospects — pretty good, if he’s willing to settle for Secretary of Agriculture; a bit slimmer if he wants something muscular like Energy.

From the start, Vilsack’s job was to present himself as a respectable alternative to the other Democratic candidates who, while he would go nowhere in states other than Iowa, could remain in the running with his fellow Hawkeyes until it was time to get out of Clinton’s way.

Even that modest task proven difficult.

Iowa Democrats never took Vilsack’s candidacy all that seriously. The latest Strategic Vision survey of potential Democratic caucus goers had former North Carolina Senator John Edwards at 24 percent, Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama each at 18 percent, and Vilsack with 14 percent.

That’s consistent with other polls. It is consistent, as well, with the reaction of key Democrats in Iowa, who dismissed Vilsack’s candidacy as they rushed to jump aboard other bandwagons. After Obama officially announced his candidacy earlier this month, two of Iowa’s most prominent Democratic officials, Attorney General Tom Miller and Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald, endorsed the Illinoisan.

And Edwards has a grassroots operation in the state that borrows far deeper into most Democratic precincts than that of Vilsack, who quickly came to understand that the definitional phrase in the term “former governor” is “former.”

Had the 2OO8 race begun more slowly, Vilsack might have had a better run. The original plan was for Clinton launch her campaign at the relatively leisurely pace of a clear front runner. With that in mind, Clintonites quietly encouraged Vilsack to get in the race early and to run hard — in order to prevent the Edwards campaign from gaining too much of a lead in the essential first-caucus state.

But Obama changed everything. After achieving superstar status on the fall 2OO6 campaign trail for Democrats around the country, the senator made it clear in early January that he intended to seek the party’s presidential nod. That forced Clinton to move her schedule forward and to hightail it into Iowa in order to counter the Obama surge.

Clinton’s moves were smart, and effective. She’s holding her own in a state where it was thought she would have a hard time. But the former First Lady’s fast start turned Vilsack’s candidacy into little more than an annoyance. There was no longer a need to have a homeboy candidate keep Iowa’s county chairs on the sidelines — either backing their former governor or at least refusing to make endorsements that might embarrass him. In fact, Vilsack was in the way. Whatever money might have slid into his campaign accounts from DLC-tied donors dried up, and the Clintonistas who had been giving him encouragement were now encouraging him to quit the race and let Hillary grab up as many of his Iowa backers as possible.

Not without an ego, Vilsack tried to pump some energy into his flagging campaign by moving left. The man who chaired the DLC for most of the past two years suddenly abandoned the group’s modestly pro-war approach to the Iraq imbroglio and started talking about the need to bring the troops home. But, as the Hotline political wire noted this week, “Even Vilsack’s anti-Iraq war message fell on deaf blogger ears.”

After this week’s Nevada forum for the Democratic presidential candidates, the Daily Kos savaged the Iowan’s response to the question: What have you done to end the war?

“What has Vilsack done to end this war?” asked Kos. “[Where] was he the last few years? Well, for one, he was chair of the Democratic Leadership Council between 2005-2007. … Of course, the DLC has been a haven for pro-war Democratic warmongers, and has been used by the media to paint a picture of a divided party.”

Ouch.

So Vilsack’s out. As Des Moines Register political writer David Yepson correctly notes, “Vilsack’s departure does little to change the nature of the national race — he was getting less than 1 percent in the polls.”

Even In Iowa, Vilsack’s exit will mean only a little.

A few savvy staffers will be freed up for hire by the other campaigns, and grassroots Dems who remained with Vilsack will now be getting calls from Clinton, Obama, Edwards and others. And Vilsack? He’ll talk about keeping his options open for awhile. But watch for him to eventually join the Clinton camp that he never really left.

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