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SCOT LEHIGH

Help for the Democrats

IOWA GOVERNOR Tom Vilsack was in town this week, and I had a chance to ask him the question that has been on Massachusetts minds for ages.

Are you growing any Belgian endive out there yet?

''Nope, nope, we're not into that," Vilsack says.

So, alas, it appears that the exotic agricultural alternative Michael Dukakis suggested to Iowa farmers on his first tour of their state, way back in 1987, failed to fall on fertile ground.

Although Vilsack didn't come East offering advice for us, he's still well worth listening to -- once you nudge him off the myriad uses of corn, that is. Indeed, he's positively animated when he talks about the shock he felt on a 1999 trip to Shanghai, and his resulting worries about the United States.

''Before I went, I had this image of China as being somewhat backward, and I went to this city that had more skyscrapers than I had ever seen in my life," he says. ''I don't think people understand that this is what China is going to be."

To compete with China, India, and other emerging economic powers, we'll have to be more innovative, he says, but that will require a better-educated workforce.

''As I tell my kids in Iowa, you are not competing against the kids in the adjoining school district," Vilsack says. ''You are competing with every person your age in the world."

Do the Iowa students believe it?

''They are beginning to believe it," the governor says. Then he adds this distressing note: ''I'm not sure parents understand that."

His message in Iowa is that the schools have to teach more math and science and that academic standards have to be higher. The teachers, the administrators, and the school boards have come to understand that, he says.

But ''parents say, 'I don't want Johnny to take calculus because it is going to ruin his grade-point average. I don't want Susie to take physics because she has got softball practice, and it is going to require her to take lab.' "

Not that's he's blaming the parents, mind you. Perhaps the real fault lies with political leaders who have failed to educate their constituents about the challenges of the future, he says.

''What they need is for someone to say, 'Look, if you want the next generation to have it better than you, you are going to have to convince the kids to take math and science and get excited about it, because that's where the future is,' " he says.

So what about Vilsack's own future, now that he's in the last year and a half of his second and final term? Several acquaintances say that, having made the finals of John Kerry's 2004 veepstakes, Vilsack is mulling a national run of his own in 2008. One clue: He's setting up a leadership PAC, a move that usually indicates national interest.

But the governor sidesteps that question. For now, the outside-of-Iowa political task he's focused on is helping Democratic gubernatorial hopefuls around the country develop cogent campaign themes. (Just before our interview, he met with Attorney General Thomas Reilly.)

''I think our party needs help, and I think I can be part of the solution," he says.

And certainly as the nation's longest-serving Democratic governor, the man whose 1998 victory ended a three-decade gubernatorial drought for Iowa Democrats, and a state CEO who has won kudos as an imaginative moderate, Vilsack is well-suited for the role.

He says the party should focus on the economy, education, and healthcare, but that it must also close a perceived security gap, while proving that Democrats understand voters' daily concerns.

''We need to reassure people that we can keep them safe," he says. ''We have to reassure them that we know the struggles that they have in everyday, ordinary life, that we are not some elite group out here that is sort of thinking pie-in-the-sky."

Finally, Democrats need to move beyond a reflexive defense of the status quo and explore creative problem-solving approaches, he says.

If the party does all that, Vilsack says, ''then I think we have a message that sells."

Correction: In last Friday's column about MIT professor Peter Diamond's Social Security proposal, I gave the wrong kick-in date for a payroll tax hike designed to spread out the cost of benefits for those who got more from the system than they paid in. It is 2023.

Scot Lehigh's e-mail address is lehigh@globe.com.


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