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CARROLL, Iowa — Politics fascinated young Christie Vilsack long before her husband, Tom, came along.
As a kid in Mount Pleasant, Vilsack — then Christie Bell — ditched her playmates to watch the Democratic National Convention on TV. When she was 10, she put a Kennedy-Johnson bumper sticker on her Schwinn. As a teen, she started a group for young Democrats. And in 1986, she encouraged her husband to run for office after a man shot and killed the Mount Pleasant mayor.
That personal interest in politics, a point of pride among caucus-loving Iowans, helped shape the eventual first lady of Iowa, now a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Christie was always involved in politics,” said Vilsack's childhood friend Melinda Huisinga. “Tom got into politics, really, because of her.”
Christie Vilsack, 62, is seeking to represent Iowa's 4th Congressional District, which stretches from Sioux City to Ames. She's facing a tough opponent in U.S. Rep. Steve King, a fiery conservative seeking his sixth term in office who has never earned less than 59 percent of the vote.
But by the end of September, Vilsack, an Ames Democrat, had raised $2.8 million, not far behind King's $3.2 million.
While Vilsack has proven herself King's strongest challenger, her critics say she isn't aggressive enough to be heard in Congress and that she has toed her party's line in a district that has embraced the politics of Republicans King and Rep. Tom Latham.
They also say that while Vilsack successfully championed causes at Terrace Hill — literacy, education and libraries — such softball issues don't qualify her to work on Capitol Hill.
Throughout the campaign, King has tried to paint Vilsack as an Obama administration insider because of her husband's role in the president's Cabinet. (He's now secretary of agriculture.)
One indicator of the race's national reach shows up in both candidates' out-of-state fundraising. King, who raised a total of $60,000 from out-of-state donors for his race in 2010, had already raised $320,000 from beyond Iowa by the end of September, according to OpenSecrets.org, a campaign finance watchdog. Vilsack had raised more than $800,000 out of state.
Vilsack says she is a moderate who, unlike King, listens to what Iowans are saying. Conservatives have pointed to Vilsack's national Democratic support as evidence she holds positions left of most Iowans — King has called her a “San Francisco liberal” who supports abortion and gay marriage, and is soft on immigration. Her contributors include David Axelrod, President Obama's chief strategist, and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent.
If elected, Vilsack says she would have a mind of her own, and would vote accordingly. She says she'll protect and improve the federal health care law, work for tax reform and prolong the life of Social Security. And she wants a new farm bill, pronto.
Vilsack would become the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress. She's counting on Election Day support from the 4th District's independent voters. It has the state's largest pocket of them.
On the trail, she talks often about a man who approached her last summer at the Greene County Fair.
“He said, 'I'm not a Democrat and I'm not a Republican, I'm an American, and I wish Congress would start acting like they're Americans, too,'” Vilsack recalled. “I've always talked with people in our state in a way that transcended across party lines.”
Vilsack kept her distance when President Obama visited Iowa this summer. Her husband hosted Obama without her.
Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist, wondered whether Iowans believe Vilsack is ready for Congress.
“She comes across as a very nice lady,” he said. “But think of Hillary (Clinton). Vilsack doesn't come across as someone who is tough and can dish it out well.”
King, on the other hand, “is tough,” Goldford said. “The things he says are things his supporters think are great.”
Tough or not, Vilsack has taken King to task during debates between the candidates. She has accused him of being an ineffective leader, more concerned with being a Tea Party pundit than serving the district.
She also blamed him for the GOP House leadership's failure to produce a farm bill, an infrastructure bill, an education bill and immigration reform.
Vilsack supports the federal government's effort to impose nutrition rules for school lunches; King does not.
King has said federal funds shouldn't be given to organizations that support abortion, such as Planned Parenthood. Vilsack said the number of abortions is reduced when women have access to reproductive health care.
Vilsack supports Obamacare; King wants to repeal it entirely.
Goldford said Vilsack held her own during the debates.
“She has managed to get under King's skin. That ability to get under his skin — if she's going to have a ticket to the finish line — is her ticket,” he said.
Vilsack enjoys the campaign trail. During a summer stop in Logan, she freshened up at the home of a delighted 90-something voter before heading to a dinner with Harrison County Democrats. A longtime Iowa Democratic strategist has called Vilsack a better campaigner than her husband, saying she's “more natural” than Tom.
Huisinga, the candidate's longtime friend, agreed. She also says anybody who calls Vilsack a softie is mistaken.
“She has what it takes,” Huisinga said. “She would stick up for what she believes in.
“She would fight.”
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