Saturday, August 18, 2007

"In a Must-Win State, Edwards Takes a Harsher Tone"

NY Times:
DES MOINES, Aug. 18 — As he travels across lush and green rural Iowa on a bus with his wife and two young children, John Edwards is an increasingly angry man. His face may break into a sunny smile and his smooth voice may drip with Southern charm, but his words are anything but soft these days.
From Ida Grove to Pocahontas, from Onawa to Osage, Mr. Edwards, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, led a 7-day, 31-stop barnstorming tour of rural Iowa this week billed as the “Fighting for One America” tour — and fighting was an apt choice of words.

At each stop, he let out the same battle cry: a populist attack on big oil, big pharmaceutical companies, big insurance companies and corporate lobbyists in Washington. These he described as being “powerful insiders” that had “rigged the system” against the ordinary working man, leaving him poorer, degrading the environment and blocking access to affordable health care.

“I’ve been fighting these people all my entire life,” said Mr. Edwards, holding forth at Cronk’s Restaurant in Denison. “I fought them in the courtroom, and I’ve beat them and beat them. We’ve got to stop being mealy-mouthed and careful. We’ve got to get rid of the robber barons. We need to have some guts.”

As his voice rose, he continued: “It makes me angry. I feel outrage. I won’t let them get away with it.”

Iowa is a must-win state for Mr. Edwards, who has been trailing Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in national polls, and he is counting on a victory in the state’s caucuses in January to catapult him into a stronger position. To that end, he has been pouring the bulk of his money, staff and own time into his effort here — not only now, as the campaign is heating up, but also over the last several years, when he was a frequent visitor to the state.

But as local polls show that his early lead here has diminished, putting him on par with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, he has become more willing to use this confrontational approach, inside of Iowa and out.

Outside the state, the Edwards campaign issues a near-daily barrage of news releases: decrying President Bush and Rudolph W. Giuliani as part of “greedy special interests,” knocking Rupert Murdoch for acquiring The Wall Street Journal, calling Mitt Romney a “radical Republican” and criticizing Mrs. Clinton for accepting donations from lobbyists.

For Mr. Edwards, whose come-from-behind rise in Iowa in 2004 turned him into a presidential contender, the question is whether this harsher tone will help or hurt him here.

Mr. Edwards says he does not think it will hurt and says Iowa caucusgoers will be swayed by his passion. But other observers here disagree — or at least see danger in this approach.

“There’s a fine line between passion and anger,” said David P. Redlawsk, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa and director of the university’s political poll. “It’s too early to tell which side of the line he is straddling. If he seems to be purely angry all the time, it will fail. People are not interested in a guy who is always angry.”

Mr. Edwards concedes that his tone has changed, especially since 2004.

“People say to me, ‘Last time, you were sunny,’ ” Mr. Edwards said at the Denison stop. “ ‘Why are you now being so tough and hard-nosed?’ ”

But in an interview on his campaign bus, Mr. Edwards said there was no political strategy behind his words, only deep passion. He described himself as being, at heart, an optimistic person and said voters would see this inner optimism shining through the toughness of his words.

As the bus pulled away from the Maple Inn Cafe in Osage, Mr. Edwards said his current tone was shaped by the years he had spent since 2004, when he lost as vice president, touring the country and studying the issue of poverty.

“It gave me the strong sense that I have to speak to this directly,” he said, as the bus rattled along. “If there is an edge to myself, it is because I’ve seen what happens to people and I feel on a deep level that is wrong.”

He continued: “I’m a naturally optimistic person who feels an outrage that should be expressed, and I think that will come across as genuine and authentic. There is no strategy to it. I just have to be myself.”

At each stop on the barnstorming tour, the presentations by Mr. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, took on the same rhythm and words. The audiences were largely composed of older rural voters who are typical of caucusgoers and, under complicated caucus rules, have power greater than their actual numbers.

Mrs. Edwards typically warmed up the crowd with a powerful pitch to voters’ pragmatism: she said her husband was the candidate who could campaign in all 50 states, especially in Southern states and in states that had recently elected Democratic governors.

“John will show up in every state and in states where others may not be competing,” Mrs. Edwards said at one stop after another. “We can’t give up states to the opposition. We will go to 50 states with the idea of winning. We can’t give up North Carolina, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Kansas and Tennessee. John can compete in all those states.”

In some ways, the active role Mrs. Edwards is playing in her husband’s campaign — where she has been outspoken in criticizing his rivals — mirrors the tone set by Mr. Edwards.

“Elizabeth Edwards is functioning in the same way that a vice presidential candidate does in the general election,” said Dennis J. Goldford, a political science professor at Drake University here. “The vice presidential candidate is the attack dog. She is saying things that he can’t say. But because she is his wife and because they are so close, he will have to be careful on how far he will let her go.”

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