Thursday, August 30, 2007

"John Edwards Bets the Farm"

At the end of a perfect summer day in Iowa, it is almost possible to believe that John Edwards' presidential campaign is right on track. At stop after stop on his mid-August bus tour, the pretty small-town squares fill with voters who say they feel a strong attachment to the former Senator from North Carolina. They relate to his rural Southern style. They agree with his argument that Washington insiders have twisted the system to rip off people like them. They don't care how much he pays for his haircuts. And they plan to caucus for him.
Edwards hopes these people will propel him to the 2008 Democratic nomination, despite national polls and fund-raising tallies that heavily favor Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The Democratic establishment has fallen into line behind Clinton; a great many people are inspired by Obama; the media are preoccupied with the competition between the two. But Edwards is busy casting his own spell in Iowa, where he came from nowhere to a second-place finish in 2004, before joining John Kerry's ticket as the vice-presidential candidate. He is betting that early success in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina can slingshot him into contention in the 20 or so states that vote on Feb. 5. But in recent weeks, as his campaign pulled staffers from Nevada and he stayed stuck in third place in New Hampshire, the first of those four states has become a must-win. "I'm not going to kid anybody," says Edwards strategist Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean's 2004 campaign. "Not winning Iowa would severely diminish our ability to whoosh out."

And so, as the Edwards caravan rolls into Ottumwa in the southeastern part of the state, the candidate and his wife Elizabeth conduct a master class in the art of emotional connection. More than 300 people have packed into a wood-paneled room inside uaw Local 74, a modest brick union hall around the corner from a vast John Deere plant. They cheer when Elizabeth Edwards cites a poll that puts her husband 8 points ahead of Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and they fall into a hush when Elizabeth talks about health care. "Ninety-five thousand women in this state are uninsured," she says, "and if you are uninsured, you are 30% to 50% more likely to die of breast cancer." Her words resonate with the knowledge that her breast cancer has spread incurably to her ribs and hip. She mentions her husband's health-care plan, which promises to cover every American at a cost to taxpayers of $90 billion to $120 billion a year, and says, "I want you to ask the other candidates, 'When your health-care plan passes, what is the number of uninsured?' That number needs to be zero." Then she hands the microphone to her husband.

Everything John Edwards says, does and wears, from the frayed cuffs of his faded jeans to the rolled-up sleeves of his basic blue shirt, tells these people he is one of them. He may be a millionaire trial lawyer, but he made his money by taking on corporations on behalf of regular folks, "and I beat 'em and I beat 'em and I beat 'em again." He and Elizabeth fall into a little routine onstage—she's the smart, gabby wife, he's the exasperated but loving husband—and when she interrupts him by mopping up some water that has spilled at his feet, he pretends to get mad. "Quit frettin' about it! Y'all stop messin' around and listen!" People laugh—husbands nudge their wives—and then they lean in and listen, because Edwards is bearing down now, telling them they need "real change in America, serious change" and they won't get it by replacing George W. Bush with just any Democrat. "We need to take the power out of the hands of these insiders that are rigging the system against you. And I'm telling you they are rigging it. You want to know why you don't have universal health care? Drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists in Washington, that's why. We will never change America until we have a President who's willing to stand up to those people and take 'em on!"

For 30 years, Democratic contenders have hugged the political center and avoided such talk because they believed that populism scares away middle-class voters. But Edwards thinks those rules are finally changing, that voters everywhere are ready for a sharp critique of what's gone wrong. And he has one advantage his opponents lack: a sweet-tea voice that makes his tough talk go down easy. He isn't ranting; he's twanging like a bluegrass banjo, rolling along in full control—outraged on behalf of people who have lost their jobs or pensions to corporate restructuring, people who watch their children go off to "this mess of a war in Iraq." And he's enthusiastic about all the things he'll do for these people as soon as he shuts down those rascally insiders: pass universal health care and middle-class tax relief, raise taxes on rich folks, end the war, stop global warming, rebuild labor unions, bail people out of foreclosure, and let's not forget highways and bridges and "college for everyone" and an antitrust investigation of Big Oil, and on and on.

Trippi likes to say Edwards is running a "transformational" campaign that calls on our better angels rather than a "transactional" campaign full of policies meant to buy votes from specific groups. But Edwards' sales pitch is full of transactions—a couple hundred billion dollars' worth of them, give or take—and the crowd in Ottumwa wants all of it. When he is finished, the people clap and whoo-hoo and head up to shake his hand and hug Elizabeth. A gray-haired woman in front of me, who wears a blouse covered with Harley-Davidson logos, is cheering as hard as anyone, so I tap her on the shoulder. When she turns, I can suddenly see the tears welling up in her eyes. I apologize for intruding and say, "He touched you, didn't he?"

She nods. "And she did too," she says. Her name is Donna Ward, and she works in a mousetrap factory. "I've made up my mind," she says. "He's my man. He knows exactly what we want." When I ask her what impressed her most, she can't point to anything in particular. She's quiet for a moment, then says, "It's more the whole feeling." So far, Edwards' spell over Iowa remains strong. A new TIME poll of likely Iowa caucus goers, taken a week after Edwards' seven-day, 31-stop bus tour, gives him 29% of the vote, 5 points ahead of Clinton and 7 ahead of Obama. With the field limited to the top four candidates, his lead over Clinton widens to 32% vs. 24%. Iowa polls can be unreliable since only 5% to 10% of voters go to the caucuses; some surveys have Edwards in a dead heat with Clinton and Obama. But Edwards' real problem is that Iowa may be the only place where the feeling for him is so powerful.

Nationally, he has found it difficult to break through the media's focus on Clinton and Obama. Edwards trails Hillary by double-digit margins, and he may not have the money to compete against their carpet-bomb television spots. "It's still possible for Edwards as well as Obama," says former Senator Bill Bradley, who in 2000 ran an insurgent primary campaign against an entrenched front runner named Al Gore. "Edwards is the best political athlete in the field—giving a speech, working a room, interacting one-on-one. He has the most detailed domestic policy, and his message [that the system is rigged] has resonance. His challenge is to say what he's going to do to fix it."

Another challenge is that much of the attention he's gotten recently has been the unflattering kind, stories that question his sincerity and assail his image as a fighter for the little guy by focusing on his pricey haircuts, huge house and hedge-fund job. These viral attacks, spreading from the Drudge Report and other blogs to newspapers everywhere, make a dumb argument. They assume that someone who's wealthy can't be a sincere advocate for poor and working people. By that logic, the healthy can't speak on behalf of the sick, or whites on behalf of people of color. But in politics, of course, dumb arguments can hurt you, which is why some Edwards aides urged him not to build such a big house. Their effort failed because the Edwardses—having battled cancer and lost a son, Wade, in an automobile accident 11 years ago, when he was 16—wanted to enjoy the luxuries they could afford. "We live our lives," says Elizabeth. "We're not pretending to be anything we're not. People have said, Don't do this or that. How would it look? But I honestly don't know how much time I've got. So we're going to live our lives."

Here's what would truly be hypocritical: if Edwards spoke out on behalf of the disadvantaged while pushing policies that benefit the rich. This he does not do. He favors boosting the capital-gains tax rate for families earning over $250,000 and closing the loophole that allows fund managers—like those at Fortress Investment Group, where he earned almost $500,000 in 2006—to get taxed at just 15%. "He wants to take money away from the people who paid him," says deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince. "That's not hypocrisy. That's sincerity."

But once a politician is branded as inauthentic, however unfairly, it's hard to shake the label. (Ask Gore.) And the Edwards campaign has not always done a good job of anticipating and shutting down potential lines of attack. In an attempt to paint Clinton as a creature of the corporate establishment, Edwards demanded that all candidates return their contributions from Rupert Murdoch and executives at News Corp., which owns Fox News. (Clinton has taken about $20,000 from them.) Murdoch's New York Post hit back with a story that Edwards had made $800,000 from a coffee-table-book deal with HarperCollins, a News Corp. subsidiary. The advance was actually $500,000, and Edwards had long since donated it to charity; the other $300,000 was expense money paid to vendors, writers and editors. But a more adroit messaging operation might have questioned—before the fact—whether Edwards was in a position to take a clean shot at Murdoch. Campaign manager David Bonior says that when they planned the shot, "I don't think the book deal ever came up."

More serious was the news that Edwards, who launched his candidacy in New Orleans and has denounced predatory lenders' foreclosing on people there, has some $16 million invested with Fortress—and Fortress has stakes in subprime lenders that are foreclosing on people in New Orleans. Edwards told me that when the story broke in May, he sought assurances from Fortress that it wasn't engaging in predatory practices and asked the company to intercede on behalf of a New Orleans mortgagor facing foreclosure. "They said, We'll do that, I said O.K., and then I forgot about it," he said. That was another mistake. By August, the Wall Street Journal was reporting that subprime companies in which Fortress has a stake had foreclosed on 34 homeowners in New Orleans. Edwards announced that he was moving his money out of the relevant funds and would dip into his own pocket to help the foreclosure victims. Of course, he would have avoided the embarrassment if he had cashed out when the issue first surfaced. Hillary and Bill Clinton, it's worth noting, liquidated their portfolio in April to avoid precisely this sort of thing.

"In the political world ... all the rough edges of life are sanded away," Elizabeth Edwards writes in a poignant new chapter of her book Saving Graces. "But the exercise of sanding away the edges has always been a waste of time." Wouldn't it be nice if that were true? Sadly, sanding away the edges remains a political necessity because opponents will grab at anything to pull a candidate off course. Even a diagnosis of cancer. The Edwardses know that some people were put off by their decision to continue the campaign despite her cancer's recurrence, that he is accused of being power-hungry and she of playing the victim card. Elizabeth explains the decision in the new chapter. After her biopsy results came back, she writes, she burst into tears "from panic at the thought that this cancer might take him out of the race. It might have seemed odd to someone who had not spent years in this fight, but this was his life and mine."

When I ask Elizabeth about this passage, she says, "He has to be President. We need someone whose motives are as honest as his. At a level nobody else sees, I know how deeply committed he is to helping people. Which is why I insisted that he stay in this race. I tell people, 'If you don't think he really believes the stuff he's saying, then don't vote for him. I'm not going to convince you.'" By the time midsummer rolled around, the negative stories had crowded out substantive ones about Edwards' proposals, so most primary voters didn't know he had been leading the debate on domestic policy. He was the first to present a credible plan for universal health care. (Obama later offered a similar but less expensive plan that leaves some 15 million uninsured; Clinton still hasn't revealed hers.) He came up with a Gore-approved policy to combat global warming and a well-conceived antipoverty package, including a $1 billion fund to help people facing mortgage foreclosure. (Clinton later proposed a similar fund.)

Edwards was more in command of the details than he was in 2004, though nobody would mistake him for a wonk. On Iraq, however, he was a bit less impressive, promising that as President he would immediately withdraw 50,000 troops but not explaining which 50,000 he had in mind. "I haven't specifically identified them," he says. "I know the regions—the north and the south, not Baghdad. I think it's a mistake for the President to micromanage. Execution should be left to the people who have the expertise."

If his policy work wasn't yet doing Edwards much good, his "change in Washington" rhetoric wasn't either. In TIME's Iowa poll, Obama beat him, 35% to 25%, on the question of who "will take on special interests in Washington." (Clinton trailed with 19%.) Iowa Democrats seem to like Edwards more for who he is than for what he says. They call him the most likable and the one who best understands their concerns, but his toss-out-the-insiders message hasn't stuck. So by late August his campaign found itself in something close to relaunch mode as he delivered what was billed as a major speech in New Hampshire designed to reclaim his role as the authentic change agent in the race. The New York Times gave the speech 276 words on page A15. Inevitably, a certain frustration has risen to the surface inside the campaign.

"The media goes to this very engaging story about a legitimate woman candidate and a legitimate candidate with an African-American heritage, and that drives up their fund-raising numbers," says Elizabeth, the unfiltered voice of the campaign, during an interview on the bus a week before that speech. "Then the media folks say, 'See, that proves we were right to focus on these two candidates' ... It's enough to make you tear your hair out." Soon she's pressing the argument that her husband is the most electable candidate, the one who will help other Democrats win in the South and West—and she's managing to attack Clinton while defending her. "I want to be perfectly clear: I do not think the hatred against Hillary Clinton is justified. I don't know where it comes from. I don't begin to understand it. But you can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it will energize the Republican base. Their nominee won't energize them, Bush won't, but Hillary as the nominee will. It's hard for John to talk about, but it's the reality."

John Edwards always knew Clinton was going to be formidable, but he didn't bank on Obama. Edwards' plan was to run a transformational campaign on Hillary's left flank, but then a fresher transformational change agent set up shop alongside him. Obama's message is more cerebral and less specific than Edwards'—it sounds a lot like Bill Bradley's in 2000—and Edwards believes that Obama will fade, as Bradley did, giving him a clean shot at Clinton. So far, Obama isn't cooperating, and Clinton is trying to triangulate her differences with Edwards and Obama by being the candidate of "change and experience," someone who sees the "invisible people"—a theme Edwards used off and on for months.

Edwards joins us on the bus, and soon he's musing on electability too. "I think most journalists would agree that I'm the most progressive, Senator Obama next, and Senator Clinton closest to the center. But I'd be willing to bet that if you ask most Americans the same question, they'd reverse it." That's not only, he says, because "she's a woman and he's an African American and Ah talk lahk thee-is. It's simple geography. Ask Middle Americans: You've got three Democratic candidates. One's from New York, one's from Chicago and one's from rural North Carolina. Who do you think is most like you?" One thing the Edwards campaign has going for it now is a focused, energized candidate. That hasn't always been the case. At campaign events earlier this year, some Edwards staffers noticed that their man seemed distracted, perhaps because of his wife's illness. That changed as a result of the three days in mid-July that he devoted to his "poverty tour," an eight-state trip meant to shine a light on some of the neediest places in the country.

The tour got off to an unimpressive start. In New Orleans, where it began, Edwards moved through a series of rushed photo ops that gave him little time to interact with people or show off the substance of his antipoverty proposals, about which he knows plenty. (In 2005 he became founding director of a poverty think tank at UNC-Chapel Hill, and since then he has visited more than 100 antipoverty programs.) As his tour moved up the Mississippi Delta, he met people enduring dreadful conditions with remarkable fortitude, and he slowly came alive.

But the poverty was more compelling than the candidate. He didn't go in for big, Bill Clinton-style shows of emotion; he simply interviewed people and let them tell their stories. At the Mount Levi Full Gospel Baptist Church in Canton, Miss., he spoke with poultry workers who live in a trailer park beside the chicken plant, as many as 10 or 12 stuffed into a single trailer with two beds. In West Helena, Ark., he met with home-health-care workers who earn little more than minimum wage from the state department of health—which won't let them work more than 20 hours a week, they say, because it would then have to give them health benefits. In a powerful moment, Edwards asked the workers how much they're paid to change geriatric diapers and salve bedsores. Hesitantly at first, then with pride and defiance, the numbers came out: "$6.30 an hour," said one woman; "$7.75," said the next; "$7.25." No one was making more than $8.63 an hour—less than $175 a week.

On Cotton Street in Marks, Miss., not so much a town as a sprinkle of cottages baking in the sun, Edwards retraced the steps of Martin Luther King Jr., who was so moved by what he saw there in 1968 that he decided to launch the Poor People's March on Washington from Marks. Sammie Mae Henley lived on Cotton Street in 1968 and still lives there today, surviving on a $620 a month Social Security check, sitting on the plywood porch of the same tumbledown shack that King visited 39 years ago. She is 80, with gunmetal-gray hair pulled back in a bun and eyes that are warm and rheumy, blinking at the politician and the reporters. "You are not 80 years old!" Edwards hollered at her. "You are looking good, I'm telling you!" She eyed him skeptically, and soon he and the media horde moved on. I asked her if a visit like this did any good.

Her son answered first. "It got them to fix the potholes in the street this morning," said Leroy Jones, 62. Is that it? "Well, I think it's a good sign," Henley said finally. "This place is looking up." Another man on the porch, James Figgs, said he was moved by Edwards' visit but he'll probably vote for Obama.

On the last day of the poverty tour, Edwards finally caught fire. It happened at the Wise County Fairgrounds in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, where he was interviewing health advocates and patients. Everybody said their bit except for one man—slim as a stick, with thick brown hair combed straight back from a well-worn face that was anchored by a salt-and-pepper goatee. He didn't say a word until Edwards noticed him. He reminded the candidate of men who'd worked in the mills with his father. "I'd like to hear from you," Edwards said.

And so James Lowe started talking, something he couldn't do until a year ago. He is 51, a disabled coal miner from the hollows of eastern Kentucky, and he was born with a severe cleft palate. When he tried to talk as a boy, he couldn't make himself understood, so after a while he stopped trying. Lowe dropped out of school in the fifth grade, followed his father into the mines and still couldn't afford treatment. Then he was partially paralyzed in a mining accident. That didn't leave him many options.

Lowe lived a mute and, by his own account, diminished life for five decades in all before he finally got a break last year. At the Wise Fairgrounds, where a volunteer group called the Rural Area Medical Health Expedition once a year provides free medical and dental treatment to all comers, dentists referred him to someone who could help. Now he has a prosthesis that enables him to speak pretty well. And so here he was on a Wednesday morning in July, back at the fairground because he wanted to say thanks. "We grew up hard, had nothing," he said. "But what these people done for me made me feel like a different person."

Lowe seemed startled when Edwards got angry on his behalf. "We have to do something about this! This is not O.K.!" the candidate said. "How can we allow this to happen, that James had to live 50 years without treatment? Let me tell you, as long as I am alive and breathing, I'm going to do something about it." He told Lowe's story at every event for the rest of the day, and he hasn't stopped since.

Edwards makes less frequent mention these days, however, of his goal of eliminating poverty within 30 years. He has taken the passions that were stirred in him by the poverty tour and moved them up the economic ladder. Rallying people to help the have-nots has given way to rallying people to help themselves. That's smart—but not especially transformational—politics. I had no idea I'd get such an emotional lift out of that trip," says Edwards, riding his bus. "But the rage I feel about James Lowe translates into the fight I bring to this campaign. And when people feel a connection with me, that's what they feel." Now his task—and it is immense—is to forge that connection with people who have never been in the room with him. He has been trying to do it while painting his opponents as fake change agents, pointing to their positions on the subject of federal lobbyists. Edwards has never taken money from them, compares their contributions to bribes and has challenged the Democratic Party to stop taking them. Obama, who used to take lobbyist donations but no longer does, has refused to join Edwards' call for a party-wide freeze on lobbyist cash. The Edwards camp calls this proof that Obama is a creature of the system who doesn't want to alienate the insiders. (Obama says he has his own plan for reform, thank you.) Clinton does take money from federal lobbyists—some $400,000 so far—and has defended them, saying they "represent real Americans ... They represent nurses, they represent social workers ... they represent corporations that employ a lot of people." That's impolitic but true—as legislators know, lobbyists serve a purpose. "Some of the best information I got was from lobbyists," says Bill Bradley. "What's important isn't shutting them out but breaking the money connection."

Edwards wants to do both. "Senator Clinton is part of the system," he says. "That's the reason she's not going to say no to lobbyist money. Her argument would be that she knows how to get things done, that the system may be flawed but she can operate in it. Obama would say his strength is bringing people together to reach a political compromise. My distinction from both of them is I'm not part of that system"—a hard argument for a former Senator and vice-presidential candidate to make. "I don't think you can nice your way through this."

When Edwards says he won't "negotiate or compromise" with lobbyists, it sounds good, but what does it mean? Negotiation and compromise are the heart of politics, so how does he intend to pass health-care reform—or anything else—without them? "I'll negotiate and compromise with the leaders of Congress," he clarifies, "but that's different than negotiating with the lobbyists. I would not negotiate with them or compromise on core principles." But even if lobbyists weren't talking to his White House, they'd still be talking to Congress and influencing the bills he'd sign. So isn't this lobbyist stuff mostly symbolic—a message to voters rather than a plan for governance?

"That's right," he concedes. Then he adds, optimistically, "But the differences between us are clear." That may be true in a union hall in Ottumwa at the end of a perfect summer day. But for much of the rest of the country, John Edwards hasn't yet managed to cast that spell.

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