WASHINGTON (AP) _ Democratic presidential hopeful Tom Vilsack said Tuesday it's time for ``tough love'' in Iraq with a reduction in U.S. troops that would force the government to make the hard decisions about repairing the fractured country.

Vilsack offered his ideas on Iraq, taxes and the 2008 campaign in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press. Meanwhile, two potential rivals for the nomination _ Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and former Sen. John Edwards _ pursued support and staff for White House bids.

Clinton expanded her outreach to political operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with early presidential nominating contests. She asked a group of about a dozen Iowa activists to attend a private dinner in Washington next week to assess her prospects.

``Of course it's flattering to be invited by a former first lady,'' said Gordon Fischer, a Des Moines lawyer who is backing Vilsack but said he was willing to meet with Clinton. An adviser also sought the names of South Carolina activists.

Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, tapped former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan to manage his campaign if Edwards decides, as expected, to run. Bonior has strong ties to organized labor _ a constituency Edwards has been aggressively courting.

A third Democrat, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, took the expected step Tuesday of filing papers to create an exploratory committee.

In the AP interview, Vilsack said he favors removing most U.S. troops from the Baghdad area and southern Iraq while maintaining a smaller security force in northern Iraq for a limited period.

The Iowa governor said Iraq may have to endure a period of heavy violence following a U.S. troop redeployment.

``It's tough love, no question about it,'' Vilsack said. ``It may very well require them to go through some chaotic and very difficult times for them to finally decide it is not in their interest to continue down that road.''

There are currently about 140,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq, most in the capital city of Baghdad and the vast Anbar Province in the western part of the country.

Vilsack called the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq ``both a crutch and an excuse,'' delaying the Iraqi government from seizing control of the country and tamping down the sectarian violence. He said continued U.S. presence in the country also bolstered the notion that the Bush administration was primarily interested in the country's oil resources.

``We can't cut the legs out from under that argument in the Islamic world,'' Vilsack warned, unless the American troop presence is drawn down and the U.S. begins actively developing alternative sources of energy.

Vilsack said that as president, he would consult with military leaders about how many of the 140,000 troops currently in Iraq to install along the northern border. The rest, he said, he would redeploy elsewhere or send home.

Vilsack sidestepped a question about whether he would pledge to balance the federal budget without raising taxes as president. He said his primary interest was establishing greater accountability for how tax dollars are spent.

``I can pledge we'll be more fiscally responsible than we have been,'' he said. ``It starts with a basic philosophy that when you invest a dollar of taxpayer money you ought to be able to tell them what you expect to get from that buck.''

Vilsack acknowledged he is an underdog in the Democratic field in which national polls show Clinton the front-runner. The race has been further jolted by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, a charismatic new figure on the national political scene who's also considering a run.

Without directly criticizing Clinton _ the often polarizing former first lady _ Vilsack said his candidacy would speak to a broad group of voters.

``I think Democrats are interested in winning,'' Vilsack said. ``I think we have to have a conversation about how we enlarge the map and speak to voters we haven't spoken to before.''

He noted that his address was 402 North Main Street, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa.

``We live on Main Street, and we understand those values,'' Vilsack said.

Clinton continued courting party activists and officials while adviser Harold Ickes, a former White House aide in the Clinton administration, used a Saturday meeting of national Democrats in Washington to solicit names of South Carolina operatives.

``He asked for a list of (South Carolina) people she should call,'' said Don Fowler, a former DNC chairman and longtime acquaintance of the Clintons.

Former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, who worked in former President Clinton's Justice Department, said she talked twice with the New York senator on Monday.

``I had the sense that this was a fairly narrow field,'' Campbell said. ``She didn't ask for other names at the moment, but she did ask if she and others working for her could contact us again at a later date and we said yes.''

Last week, she spoke to New Hampshire's Democratic governor, John Lynch, officials told the AP.

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Associated Press Writers Mike Glover in Des Moines, Iowa; Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H.; Nedra Pickler in Washington and Jim Davenport in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.