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Can John Edwards win?

His message is strong, but his campaign is stuck



Congressman Jim Clyburn's free and famous fish fry is the curtain-closer on a long Saturday in April at the South Carolina Democratic Party convention in Columbia. For party workers, it's a show. For native son John Edwards and the other 2008 presidential candidates, it's the beauty contest that comes after the talent round and the questions about world peace.

South Carolina Democrats are the scrappy underdogs—most white voters switched parties with Strom Thurmond—which explains why Clyburn's event is held not at the convention center but in the bowels of a parking deck a few blocks away. There, 3,000 of the party faithful and convention delegates, diverse in every way, stand jammed between the tables covered with sodas and beer, or else wait for a paper plate loaded with fried catfish and slaw. But mostly they're mingling, seeing and being seen, while watching for the charismatic Clyburn, leader of the state's African-American political establishment, to appear on a small stage tucked in against the up-ramp to the street.

When Clyburn appears, so do six of the eight presidential candidates, dressed variously in rolled-up shirtsleeves (Edwards, Barack Obama), blazers (Bill Richardson, Chris Dodd, Joe Biden) or, in Hillary Clinton's case, in a pale yellow suit and pearls. Tonight, Clyburn will be their Bert Parks, who loves them all and endorses no one—yet. For now, he'll let the crowd be heard on the new Ms. or Mr. America.

Clyburn introduces Edwards first. He was vice presidential nominee last time, after all, and was born in Seneca, a few miles west of Clemson. In 2004, Edwards won the South Carolina primary—his only win. Edwards, composed and serious, says a few well-judged words about race, a subject strangely absent the night before when the candidates debated for the MSNBC cameras at historically black South Carolina State University. Southern Democrats have the knowledge and the obligation to talk about racial equality wherever they go in America, Edwards says. He will.

People are nodding. Clinton is nodding. More cheers and whistles erupt when Edwards hands back the mike.

Next, Clyburn introduces Clinton, to a roar of approval. She is radiant, laughing, not at all like the tight-lipped wife we remember from Clinton White House days. "Are you ready for change?" she shouts. The crowd roars again. She's the one.

Hillary Clinton in New York City in October 2006 - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

After Clinton comes Obama. He has that huge grin going, and the crowd roars once more, almost as loudly as for Clinton. Obama salutes Clyburn, but his words are drowned out by the African-American women stamping on the flimsy bleachers where I'm standing. One climbs past me swinging a cargo-sized convention bag with a "Hillary!" sticker and a jumbo "Obama '08" button.

Barack Obama in Selma, Ala., in March 2007 - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

I give her bag a crooked look. She's exultant. "I'm for Obama and Hillary!" she exclaims. Another step up, and she turns back to me and adds: "And I like Edwards too!"

Well, at least he's in her top three.

Whether Edwards can overtake his rivals in South Carolina and the rest of country, and ultimately turn his new house near Chapel Hill into the Triangle White House, is a good question not to try to answer just yet. Edwards came from much farther behind in '04. Maybe he can do it again.

But with just six months to go until January, when the first votes are cast in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and then South Carolina, Edwards has some tough obstacles in his path, including one—his 28,000-square-foot house—that he put there himself. analyst Jay Cost calls the house an "amateur" mistake because it clashes so resoundingly with Edwards' message, letting his critics call him a hypocrite.

On the plus side, he has a powerful populist platform, honed over four years and hundreds of speeches, about providing universal health care, supporting fair trade, fighting poverty, strengthening unions and curbing corporate power. And ending the war in Iraq.

It's a compelling message. The test is whether Edwards will prove an equally powerful messenger—and a convincing leader.

On Sunday morning, Clinton and Obama leave for a California event, and only Edwards, among the three "top-tier" contenders, returns to the convention hall to address the delegates before he, too, flies west.

Edwards gives a ringing, progressive speech, starting with his trademark image of the "two Americas" (they're "alive and well," he says sarcastically) and ranging across the labor, health care and other reforms he's backing to shrink the gap between rich and poor. "Nothing can be done about poverty?" he demands. "It's a lie. It's a myth."

He concludes with a statement and a question. "Elizabeth and I have made a decision about how we want to live our lives. We love America more than I can tell you," he says. "But we need you. The strength of America is in this room.... How much do you want to live in a moral and just America?"

Elizabeth Edwards has been her husband's closest adviser through two presidential campaigns. She was at his side for a 2004 homecoming rally at N.C. A&T University. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Elizabeth Edwards has been her husband's closest adviser through two presidential campaigns. She was at his side for a 2004 homecoming rally at N.C. A&T University.

It's the best speech of the day, but how much does it really count? Clinton "won" the televised debate, it's widely agreed, by dint of getting the first question—on Iraq—and handling it with aplomb, then staying under control. Meanwhile, Obama stumbled a bit, and Edwards had the bad luck to be asked, right out of the box, about his $400 haircuts. He fanned on that one and never recovered. That's what the Democratic world saw outside of Columbia.

That aside, Edwards' problem is that even in his native state, which is also, not incidentally, the first Southern primary state, polls show him stuck in third place, far behind both Clinton and Obama. And if more evidence of the pecking order is needed, it's all over the South Carolina convention hall, from the giant "Hillary!" pictures to the buzz about how Obama's signing up thousands of local volunteers online.

It's in the intensity of Marguerite Willis, the 57-year-old lawyer who supplied all those pictures and the doors displayed in the corridors that say "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue" below the title "Madame President."

"Growing up in Greenville," Willis says, "I never thought I could be president. Hillary's campaign is ground-breaking.... How could I not be part of it?"

Edwards has fans here too. One is Tony Yarborough, 47, an '04 Edwards man who's been taking part-time work lately since his father sold the family's auto parts business to a national chain. It's made him acutely aware of the need for a national health-insurance program and local economic initiatives like those that Edwards advocates.

But I also meet some women—peace activists, white, members of Code Pink and Food Not Bombs—who were with Edwards in '04 but are thinking about Clinton this time. "She's got balls, and she's put up with a lot of shit," one of them named Sandy explains.

For them, Clinton's earned her shot and her credibility—and not only because she married Bill. It also translates into the argument Willis makes: By working with Bill through five terms in Arkansas and two in the White House, plus her own eight years in the U.S. Senate, Hillary "is by far the best-qualified, most-experienced candidate."

If Clinton's got the experience, and Obama the pizzazz, where does that leave Edwards?

Democratic contenders debate in South Carolina on April 25 - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

1. He's squeezed between two breakthrough candidates

What we need to know about the national polls is contained in this July 12 assessment by the Gallup organization's analysts:

"The overall trend in the race has not changed significantly over the course of the year [emphasis added]. Clinton has typically led Democrats' preference list for their party's nomination with no less than 37 percent support (when Gore is excluded), with Obama usually in second place with support in the mid-20s, Edwards in third in the mid-teens, and no other candidate getting more than 5 percent support in any of these surveys."

(With Gore, everybody drops a few points and Gore is about even with Edwards.)

Behind the numbers, and the reason they haven't moved, lies the fundamental problem Edwards faces. Clinton, the most experienced, the establishment candidate, represents both the safe choice and a breakthrough candidate for women. Meanwhile Obama, not Edwards, is the obvious change candidate, combining youth and his biracial appeal in a way Edwards can counter but never match.

Liberal sage Bill Moyers, for example, was asked recently about the new leaders we need.

"I believe that elites have to let go," Moyers answered. "Hillary Clinton would make a good president, but the same old crowd would come back with her. But when I look at Barack Obama, I think about John F. Kennedy, who leaped over Hubert Humphrey's generation to bring fresh voices and fresh ideas. I keep thinking that we need to let that happen again."

Leaping to the 45-year-old Obama's cohort would mean turning the page on baby boomers like the Clintons. But it also skips Edwards, who's 54, and it implicitly or—like Moyers—explicitly proclaims that the boomers will never fulfill the promises of their youth about equality, justice and peace.

Edwards' first challenge is to convince the huge boomer bloc not to give up on themselves. If they turn to Obama, Edwards has no base, and he will never have the chance to argue that he, not Clinton, is the boomer who can finish what John and Bobby Kennedy started. No wonder that in response to Clinton's and Obama's calls for "change," Edwards is demanding "big, bold change."

Supporters at Edwards' December press conference in Chapel Hill announcing his 2008 presidential bid. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Supporters at Edwards' December press conference in Chapel Hill announcing his 2008 presidential bid.

2. His top "big, bold change": Universal health care

The best thing Edwards has done in this campaign is lead with the strongest plan for universal health insurance coverage. It isn't a single-payer plan, with government paying for everyone and insurance companies sidelined. That said, it set the bar on health-care policy much higher than either Obama or Clinton has wanted to go, allowing Edwards to offer it as an example of his willingness to push for "bold changes" as opposed to the small, incremental ones of Bill Clinton's presidency.

Unveiled in February, Edwards' plan includes a requirement that everyone purchase health insurance, the same as every driver must have auto insurance. Companies could choose between offering group coverage to their employees or paying a health fee to the government; individuals not covered in employer groups could purchase insurance from a government-run "Health Market" modeled after Medicare. The poor would be covered for free (as under Medicaid). Lower-income families would be subsidized, using up to $120 billion gained by repealing the Bush tax cuts for people earning more than $200,000 a year.

The plan calls for full mental-health parity and bans "adverse selection": Insurance companies would be forced to take all comers at the same rate, regardless of prior illnesses. Insurers could thus save the money they currently spend dodging the sick and marketing to the healthy.

Highly detailed, Edwards' plan won plaudits from progressive Princeton University economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who called it "a smart, serious proposal ... [which] addresses both the problem of the uninsured and the waste and inefficiency of our fragmented insurance system."

Krugman said Clinton and Obama should match it. They haven't. Obama announced a plan similar in many respects, but his doesn't require everyone to buy coverage, so it's not universal. Clinton is still working on her plan; her campaign says it will be universal, but she'll need two presidential terms—eight years—to implement it.

Two other things to note about Edwards' health-insurance plan. One, it serves to remind Democrats of the Clintons' failure to execute on their '92 campaign promise of universal coverage. Two, it underscores why they failed, and why Edwards might be more likely now to succeed.

The Clintons, leaders of the business-funded Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), are allies of corporate America, and they spent Bill's first year in office trying to cut a deal with the insurance industry. But the complicated plan they produced just served as fodder when the industry turned on its "Harry and Louise" attack ads.

Edwards, however, made his fortune as a trial lawyer by suing insurance companies for injured clients. Far from trying to get along with insurers, his plan is emblematic of an anti-establishment populism that says corporations must serve the public interest, not just investors.

Indeed, the Edwards health plan would pit the private insurers against Medicare-like plans with every expectation that the lower government rates could drive the privates right out of the business unless they shape up. So, too, could Obama's plan. But as The Washington Post reported recently, Obama never mentions this on the campaign trail, but Edwards always does.

On June 21, Edwards spoke out in support of an effort to organize a union for Smithfield Foods workers, with him outside his campaign headquarters in Chapel Hill. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • On June 21, Edwards spoke out in support of an effort to organize a union for Smithfield Foods workers, with him outside his campaign headquarters in Chapel Hill.

3. More big, bold changes: Poverty, labor, climate

There is a realm of Democratic politics where Edwards is in first place: the blogosphere. He's never failed to lead the poll of DailyKos readers, for example (Obama's in second), for an obvious reason: They're the activists who follow the candidates' policy positions most closely. And as writer-author David Mizner wrote in an extended online essay after following Edwards for some years: "There no longer can be any doubt: John Edwards is running a bold, progressive campaign."

Edwards has long been a progressive, Mizner notes, although he's obviously evolved since entering public life. Edwards demonstrated his "instincts" in his '98 Senate campaign, when he championed the "Patients' Bill of Rights." (Elected, he helped make it law.) The son of a mill worker, he was an early, steady proponent of fair trade and opposed free-trade agreements that undermined American labor and environmental standards. He had a 100 percent pro-choice record in office. He's a "natural" progressive, Mizner argues.

At the heart of Edwards' agenda is the "two Americas" text—the idea that the well-off have rigged our business, financial and legal systems in ways that make it easier for them (and their children) to succeed and harder for the poor.

After talking about this throughout the '04 campaign, Edwards set up a new shop, the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC-Chapel Hill, and proceeded to tour the country in '05 and early '06, rallying support and looking for community-based solutions. He hooked up with ACORN, the grassroots organizing group, on local campaigns to raise the minimum wage and attack poverty. When this work was questioned recently in a New York Times article suggesting that the center was a thinly veiled vehicle for Edwards' political campaign, ACORN President Maude Hurd vehemently defended Edwards.

Edwards was "a steadfast ally," Hurd said. "While Senator Edwards could have chosen to do anything else with his time, he chose to spend it on the road with low-wage workers and their allies who were fighting to lift workers out of poverty."

Edwards has called for raising the federal minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by 2012. He's attacked oil-industry profiteering at the gas pumps. He's been on a tear about abuses in the credit card and mortgage loan industries. He talks up unions as "historically our best anti-poverty program" and backs much stronger labor-organizing laws—aligning himself, for example, with the workers at Smithfield Foods in their fight to get a union at their giant Bladen County hog plant. He's for jobs-producing investments in major new housing, public works and clean energy programs.

To Jeff Cohen, of Progressive Democrats of America, Edwards is paying the price for backing labor against corporate America in the form of mainstream media shots at his haircuts, his house and his consulting work for a hedge fund. "Among the 'top-tier' presidential candidates," Cohen says, "Edwards is alone in convincingly criticizing corporate-drafted trade treaties and talking about workers' rights and higher taxes on the rich.... Given a national media that worships 'free trade' and disparages Democrats for catering to 'extremists' like on Iraq, the media's rather obsessive focus on Edwards' alleged hypocrisy should not surprise us."

Speaking of, its 100,000 voting members last week picked Edwards' plan for addressing climate change and global warming as best, by a wide margin, among the eight Democrats.

It's a plum for Edwards if Gore doesn't run—as he says he won't. "MoveOn members want leaders who will take on the oil and coal industry and create a clean-energy economy," MoveOn's Ilyse Hogue commented. "That's probably why Senator Edwards' support of cap-and-auction systems—which force polluters to pay citizens—and his call for more green-collar jobs received such strong backing."

4. Squeezed out again on Iraq

On paper, there's little difference in Edwards' position on Iraq going forward and those of Clinton and Obama. All three want the United States to immediately begin to withdraw American troops, with a complete pullout in 2008. Only small forces will be left in Baghdad to guard the Green Zone, and elsewhere in the region to hunt terrorists. All want war funding tied to a timetable for getting out.

Iraq would be a major campaign issue between Edwards and Clinton, except that again, Obama's stated opposition to the invasion itself—while he was in the Illinois legislature—stands in Edwards' way. In the Senate, Edwards and Clinton both voted in October 2002 to authorize the attack. Edwards confessed his error in a November 2005 Washington Post op-ed. ("I was wrong," it began.) Clinton still blames her vote on Bush. And Clinton was a generally unquestioning supporter of war appropriations until this year, as was Obama. Meanwhile, Edwards became a vociferous war critic, a key reason the blogosphere likes Edwards, dislikes Clinton and cautiously regards Obama.

But Edwards' attempt, in the second Democrats' debate in New Hampshire on June 3, to cast himself as an antiwar leader, and Clinton and Obama as mere followers, drew a sharp rebuke from Obama, who called it "about four years too late."

Still, Edwards could capitalize if congressional Democrats keep agreeing to fund the war without a timetable—or if they cut a deal like the one Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley described Sunday, which would leave most U.S. forces in Iraq indefinitely for a vaguely defined "next phase. In that case, Edwards could emerge as the antiwar movement's champion.

Edwards, with children Jack, 6, and Emma Claire, 9, celebrated his 54th birthday with a rally outside a Chapel Hill hotel on June 10. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG
  • Photo by Jenny Warburg
  • Edwards, with children Jack, 6, and Emma Claire, 9, celebrated his 54th birthday with a rally outside a Chapel Hill hotel on June 10.

5. How he wins (maybe)

It's easy. He's in third place. He moves up to second, then goes for first. If only. It's not hard to imagine how Edwards, the candidate of bold change, could take down Hillary Clinton, the candidate of "let's do things again the way we did them before when my husband was president"—were it he against she, that is. He generally fares better in head-to-head matchups against the Republicans—although slightly. Edwards promises, especially when he's with Southern Democrats, to campaign all across the country. His implication is Clinton won't—and if she heads the ticket, the South will be lost.

But before Edwards can contest Clinton, he must get past Obama. Can he?

The answer lies in something Obama said: The voters will support the candidate who gives them the strongest "vision of leadership"—someone they can envision running, winning and governing well, in other words.

Obama leads Edwards in the polls and far outpaces him in the number of campaign contributors, with an amazing 350,000 to Edwards' 100,000. But the polls also show Obama not gaining on Clinton, and in fact he may be slipping a little. Meanwhile, Edwards continues to be in first place ahead of Clinton—albeit barely of late—in the crucial state of Iowa.

If Obama stays stuck, and does poorly in the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Democratic voters could decide that only Edwards has a chance to beat Clinton. And thus their choice of whom to send forth against the Republicans should be between those two.

For that to happen, Edwards has to run at least second in those three contests. Otherwise, he'll be left in the dust in South Carolina. And since he nearly won Iowa last time, and has led there consistently since, he'd better win that state, or his chances in Nevada and New Hampshire plummet.

That's the four-state strategy Edwards' deputy campaign manager, Jonathan Prince, talked about when Edwards' second-quarter fundraising netted him $9 million, while Obama and Clinton raised $31 million and $24 million, respectively. Edwards has plenty of money on hand to run in the first four contests, Prince said. Left unsaid: If Edwards hasn't passed Obama by then, he's done. Because the Florida, California, New York and 18 other primaries come by in a rush through Feb. 5, at which point the outcome could be settled—and surely will be for anyone not in the top two.

The birthday rally drew about 700 supporters; tickets were $15. - PHOTO BY JENNY WARBURG

When Edwards returned to Chapel Hill on June 10 to celebrate his 54th birthday, he led with the war when he spoke at an outdoor rally to 700 supporters.

"My view is that the Congress has a responsibility and a mandate from the American people to end this war," he said. The United States should instead "show our better angels to the world" by funding schools around the world for 100 million impoverished children, he added. "But [Bush] won't change unless Congress makes him."

Orange County Democratic Party Chairman Jack Sanders called Edwards' speech "terrific"—"I think he's got a real clear idea of what the important issues are." And Thomas Mills, a campaign consultant who's "a fan of all the Democratic candidates" and not working for any of them, said he thinks Edwards is well-positioned to move up from third place because of his tight campaign organization and the way he's driving the issues. "He's keeping things moving," Mills said. Meanwhile, Obama hasn't been tested ("vetted") in a national campaign, unlike Edwards and the Clintons. If Obama implodes, and it becomes Clinton versus Edwards, that would be a cliff-hanger, he said.

And Edwards? "I like very much where I am," the candidate said last week. "Among the three of us, I'm the underdog. I'm fighting. It's always worked very well for me. That's the story of my life."

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