Can Mr. Smith Get To Washington?

PBS's Independent Lens is looking at what it takes to be a candidate and if it's even viable without all the trappings that turn public servants into politicians.

When Jeff Smith, a 29-year-old part-time political science instructor, decided to run for Congress, his friends and family members thought he was joking. "I don't think a person with the mind that he has should waste it on politics," quipped his grandmother, Ida. But as the race to replace former House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt heats up, Smith mobilizes an army of nearly 500 volunteers in a grassroots campaign that is low on funds but big on passion, threatening to shake up Missouri state politics. CAN MR. SMITH GET TO WASHINGTON ANYMORE? follows the Smith campaign in the months leading up to the election, charting this political underdog's efforts against the leading candidate, State Representative Russ Carnahan, the scion of Missouri's most powerful political dynasty.

The odds against Jeff Smith are overwhelming. He starts with no money, no political base and no name recognition. His staff is a hodge-podge of political nobodies with little campaign experience. Smith's opponent Russ Carnahan's record is thin, his public performances are weak, and his campaign is uninspired. Yet, his family's strong establishment ties provide him fundraising connections and name recognition. As one political analyst comments in the film, "The Carnahan name is to Missouri what the Kennedy name is to Massachusetts."

According to the site, the show is scheduled to air on February 27th. Check your local listings to confirm.

In related news, Tom Vilsack has dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination:

"This process has become to a great extent about money -- a lot of money," he told reporters at a news conference today. "And it is clear to me that we would not be able to continue to raise money in the amounts necessary to sustain not just a campaign in Iowa and New Hampshire, but a campaign across this country.

"So it is money and only money that is the reason that we are leaving today."

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Vilsack's abrupt decision underscored the financial challenges facing lesser-known candidates as they try to compete for contributions against New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and highlighted how the intense start to the 2008 campaign has dramatically escalated the cost of running even in the opening months of competition.


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