N.H. backer laments loss of Vilsack

CONCORD, N.H. -- Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack called Gary Hirshberg on Thursday night to tell him he was ending his presidential campaign. Friday morning, the phone rang again: it was Sen. Barack Obama, who waited just two minutes after Vilsack’s public announcement to ask for Hirshberg’s support.

Hirshberg, the founder and chief executive officer of Stonyfield Yogurt, was one of Vilsack’s earliest and most prominent New Hampshire supporters. He said Vilsack’s departure from the race was disappointing both personally and in terms of what it says about the political process.

Vilsack told reporters that his inability to raise enough money to compete with his top-tier rivals was the sole reason for his decision to leave the race for the Democratic nomination. According to his most recent financial documents, Vilsack raised more than $1.1 million in the last seven weeks of 2006 but had less than $400,000 in the bank.

"He’s governed, he’s been absolutely correct on foreign policy, on energy security and on agriculture," Hirshberg said. "So it’s tragic that he really has everything except money."

Hirshberg said he also believes Vilsack suffered from an eagerness by the media and to some extent voters to define an early front-runner instead of having a serious conversation about the issues.

"It’s not just about money, though that’s what did Tom’s campaign in," he said. "It’s our focus on the process, not the product."

"Everybody I know who has met Tom has come away wowed," he said. "Admittedly, many have come away shaking their heads saying, ‘Too bad he can’t win.’ As a guy who started a company with seven cows that’s now and for 18 years been the fastest growing yogurt company in the world, I just say, that’s unfortunate."

Kathy Sullivan, chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said the rush to hold early primaries forced Vilsack out of the race, and she worries the same will happen to other lesser-known candidates. Several large states, including California, are considering moving up their contests to play more prominent roles in the nominating process. New Hampshire, which traditionally holds the first primary, hasn’t set its date yet.

Sullivan praised Vilsack for embracing New Hampshire’s tradition of retail politics while criticizing national leaders of both parties for not trying to stop the shift to early primaries and caucuses.

"How many qualified and dynamic leaders do we have to lose in this race before something is done?"

During their conversation Thursday night, Vilsack asked Hirshberg to keep his decision quiet -- a tough request given that Vilsack’s national field manager has been living with Hirshberg’s family.

"I had to kind of tiptoe around my house," he said.

As for his conversation with Obama, Hirshberg said he told the Illinois senator he isn’t ready to commit to another candidate just yet.

"Although we’re absolutely undecided, I was very impressed," Hirshberg said. "Though we can wring our hands now about the role of money in these campaigns, it’s still really vindicating to me to see, particularly here in New Hampshire, that grassroots, house-to-house, person-to-person politics is still the order of the day. I think Sen. Obama just proved that."