Friday, August 10, 2007

"The Real Liberal: John Edwards is Third in the Polls, But Don't Count Him"

Tim Dickinson (Rolling Stone):
If he weren't rich, handsome and so well married, you might feel a little sorry for John Edwards. Never before in the 231-year history of our republic have the inalienable traits that Edwards possesses -- his fair skin and a Y chromosome -- been anything but a prerequisite for presidential politics. Today, his race and gender stand a chance of derailing his campaign altogether.
"There's a lot of democrats who would like to make history," says Markos Moulitsas, founder of the influential online forum Daily Kos. "The party is anxious to nominate a black or a woman," agrees Dick Morris, the former adviser to Bill Clinton. "You have to sign off on either of those two options before you even get to voting for Edwards." Indeed, Edwards has been all but eclipsed by the celebrity candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: He ranks a distant third in national polls, and his $12 million cash on hand is barely a third of Hillary's and Obama's hauls.

But counting Edwards out would be a big mistake. Flying below the radar, the former vice-presidential candidate is pulling off a feat that Democratic consultants have long considered impossible: staking out the most progressive platform among the viable candidates while preserving an aura of electability. In head-to-head polling against the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, Clinton and Obama have managed to post only modest leads. Edwards, by contrast, not only bests every Republican candidate in the race, he trounces them -- by an average of twelve points.

"Edwards' message is more left than it was in '04, and it's attracting the right kind of people for the primaries," says Bill Carrick, a veteran party strategist. "But the general electorate still sees him as mainstream. He's doing a good job of threading that needle."

While Clinton and Obama are running media-age campaigns that focus on big ad buys in delegate-rich states, Edwards is taking a decidedly old-school approach. In a strategy reminiscent of the way Jimmy Carter captured New Hampshire in 1976, Edwards has focused on building grass-roots support in Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina -- the first four Democratic contests, all of which will be held in January. Working out of the national spotlight, he has established a sizable lead in the state where a victory in 2004 effectively clinched John Kerry's nomination. "Edwards could well win Iowa," says James Carville, the former adviser to Bill Clinton. Thanks to his Southern roots and a deep relationship with organized labor, Edwards would then become the candidate to beat in both South Carolina and Nevada -- victories that would establish him as the front-runner a week before the huge "national primary" scheduled for twenty states on February 5th. "If he wins Iowa and New Hampshire," says Chris Lehane, a top strategist for both Kerry and Al Gore, "He'll have such a head of steam he'll be unstoppable."

It's a smoggy Monday in late June, and Edwards is padding down a backstage hallway at NBC Studios in Burbank wearing purple jogging shorts and a blue T-shirt soaked with sweat. His grin, away from the cameras, is easy and unguarded, the weight of the campaign swept aside by the buzz of endorphins from a three-mile run. Stripped of his trademark chinos and blue blazer, Edwards is built like a point guard, taller and leaner than you'd expect. His goal this afternoon is to break down the defenses of his TV nemesis: Jay Leno, who has spent months skewering the candidate for his $400 haircut. John Edwards "said it was a mistake," goes one Leno line -- "especially in the back, where they didn't feather enough."

The Tonight Show offers Edwards a rare opportunity to move beyond the beauty-shop jokes and lay out something that has received only glancing national attention: his agenda. If you last tuned in to Edwards during the son-of-a-mill-worker days of 2004, the difference in his vision will surprise you. Gone is the cautious centrist groomed by uberconsultant Bob Shrum as a sort of Bill Clinton Lite. For 2008, he has been replaced by what the campaign hopes will play as the Real John Edwards, a shoot-from-the-hip progressive who won't scare away moderates. "Incremental steps don't work," Edwards says today. "We are not in that place in America anymore. We need huge changes. And it's going to require a president and a people who are willing to do some things that may feel dangerous in the short term."

Take global warming: While Clinton spouts happy talk about ethanol and "clean coal," and Obama focuses on a technocratic proposal to lower the "carbon intensity" of auto fuel, Edwards has a plan that would make the Union of Concerned Scientists proud. "We need an eighty percent reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050," the candidate told Rolling Stone in a wide-ranging interview. "You start by capping carbon emissions in America. Beneath the cap, you auction off the right to emit any greenhouse gases. And you use that money --$30 to $40 billion -- to transform the way we use energy."

Or poverty. Ending deprivation at home -- by making it easier for workers to unionize, raising the minimum wage to $9.50, cracking down on predatory lending, and providing matching funds to help low-income Americans save -- remains the hallmark of his candidacy. But informed by his travels in Africa, Edwards now proposes spending $5 billion a year to educate 100 million children worldwide, improve drinking water and sanitation in developing countries, and slow the ravages of HIV and AIDS.

When he's not echoing Bono and Al Gore, Edwards sounds a bit like Michael Moore. He was the first contender with a plan for universal medical coverage, and his proposal goes further than Obama's by mandating that every American be provided a health plan. And where Clinton would leave a significant troop presence in Iraq indefinitely, Edwards calls for a complete withdrawal. He has issued the most forceful repudiation of Bush's "war" on terror, and in July he proposed a tax hike for wealthy investors.

"Edwards is swinging for the fences," says Peter Leyden, director of the New Politics Institute, a progressive think tank. "He's got strategy reasons for doing that -- he's got to get on the board differently. But given where we are as a country right now, his transformative rhetoric is right on the money."

Such unabashed progressive stances have made Edwards a hit among the party's Netroots activists. His climate-change plan was the runaway favorite in a straw poll that followed the Live Earth concerts. And in a recent survey of more than 16,000 Democrats on Daily Kos, Edwards emerged as the top choice, registering forty percent support to Obama's twenty-two percent. "Edwards' proposals go the furthest -- they're like the ideal," says Moulitsas of Daily Kos. "Everybody else is playing it so safe it's dreadful."

The Edwards campaign presents his progressive evolution as a return to his core beliefs. "In 2004 he was consultant-driven," says Moulitsas. "In his gut he was against the war, but Bob Shrum talked him into co-sponsoring the authorization." That line is echoed by the candidate's chief adviser: his wife, Elizabeth. Sitting in a stuffy dressing room at The Tonight Show, she tells Rolling Stone that her husband is no longer deferring to consultants. This time, she says, "He's reaching for the brass ring."

Elizabeth Edwards has emerged as the campaign's liaison to the activist base, reaching out to constituencies that the candidate can't court directly. In June, ignoring her husband's nuanced support for civil unions, she openly endorsed gay marriage at San Francisco's pride parade. She also serves as the campaign's chief attack dog. In our couch-side chat at The Tonight Show, she launches a broadside against Clinton, accusing the senator of "not addressing women's issues. Health care is a woman's issue; the face of poverty is a woman's face. Yet she's got nothing on these issues. Where are the programs? They're completely missing."

But the pivotal question is how the candidate's progressive stance will play in Iowa: Unlike Clinton and Obama, Edwards has no other options. "He's only got one strategy -- he's got to win Iowa," says Carrick, who was a key adviser to Dick Gephardt in 2004. "If you get that slingshot effect out of Iowa, you can really take off in New Hampshire." Win them both, history suggests, and you're a lock for the nomination. "Edwards has a game plan," says Lehane. "You can see how it can work if everything comes into alignment."

To solidify his support in Iowa, Edwards has been quietly crisscrossing the state for the past two years, cultivating local party leaders and dropping in at picnics and ice cream parlors in towns like Tama and Sac City. "He's been campaigning in Iowa ever since 2004," says Gordon Fischer, a stout, goateed Des Moines lawyer who served as the Democratic chair in Iowa in 2004. "He never left." Edwards was the first candidate, on either side of the aisle, with campaign chairs in each of Iowa's ninety-nine counties. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, produced an internal memo that floated the idea of bypassing Iowa altogether and focusing instead on "winning this new national primary" on February 5th.

Iowa plays to Edwards' gifts as a trial lawyer, speaking to small groups in the state's 1,800 precincts. "Coming from North Carolina, he's particularly effective communicating to conservative Democrats in rural Iowa," says Fischer. "He's leading in the polls, and he's got the most superior organization -- head and shoulders above the others." Much of that organization comes from those he calls his "brothers and sisters" in organized labor. Where the failed Gephardt campaign staked its political fortunes in Iowa to the declining industrial unions, Edwards has forged ties to the rapidly expanding unions that represent government and service workers.

Indeed, no Democrat has made a stronger play for union backing than -- Edwards: Since 2004, he has participated in more than 180 labor events -- including a hunger strike for immigrant janitors in Miami -- for twenty different unions. In 2006, while Clinton was burning through $30 million on her shoo-in re-election campaign in New York, Edwards was campaigning for initiatives to increase the minimum wage in six key states. While other candidates have little time for labor-hall rallies -- the PR firm of Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, has actually engaged in union busting -- Edwards has made labor a central element of his anti-poverty campaign. On the stump, he calls collective bargaining the key to "making work pay" and lifting low-wage Americans out of poverty.

"This is a true commitment on his part," says Anna Burger, chair of the labor federation Change to Win. "He was doing this when there were no cameras watching him. We needed a spotlight on workers, and anything he could do to raise their profile, he was willing to do that. His special relationship with labor is forcing the other candidates to play catch-up."

Union support could pay off big in Nevada, where the hotel and service workers in the casinos of Las Vegas and Reno offer Edwards the kind of organizational muscle money can't buy. "The unions are going to own the Nevada caucus," predicts Moulitsas. "It's all about organization. So there's a very strong possibility Edwards will take Iowa and then Nevada. That would give him real momentum going into New Hampshire."

Veteran strategists agree that Edwards will need every bit of it. "As good as his operation is in Iowa, Hillary is as good if not better in New Hampshire," says Lehane. But unlike 2004, when Edwards had only seven organizers on the ground in New Hampshire, he is now deploying forty. Nor is the Granite State a lock for anyone: The candidate who led one recent poll here isn't even a candidate -- it's Al Gore. It requires no great leap to imagine that many would-be Gore supporters will ultimately gravitate to the other white male Southerner with a serious plan for global warming.

Such considerations of race and gender can't be overlooked, says Leyden of the New Politics Institute. "Obama and Clinton are terrific candidates," he says, "but they each represent an untested threshold in American politics. You have to entertain the idea that when Democrats really think about who is going to ensure that the party wins in 2008, a lot of people might get nervous and say, 'Damn it, we need a good-looking, charismatic white guy.' I hate to be crass. But that's baldfaced politics."

Edwards himself takes pain not to play the race or gender cards directly, saying only that "we must nominate a candidate who will win the general election." The unstated implication is that, while racism and sexism would hurt Obama and Clinton in November 2008, Edwards could run strong in the South -- particularly against Northerners like Romney or Giuliani. "You get a Southerner against a former Massachusetts governor or former New York City mayor, and you've really got a cultural dichotomy that is tough on the GOP," says Carrick. "It's enough to make a Republican strategist suicidal." Edwards is also careful to temper his progressivism with more centrist positions. Speaking to Rolling Stone, Edwards refused to rule out recommitting U.S. forces to Iraq to halt a genocide, and he even demonized single-payer health care: "Do you think the American people want the same people who responded to Hurricane Katrina to run their health-care system?" On The Tonight Show, Edwards also played it down the center, soft-pedaling global warming and trumpeting his anti-poverty credentials.

The appearance didn't move the needle on his poll numbers, but it may have helped him turn the page on that disastrous haircut. Two weeks after the show aired, Edwards was still featured in Leno's monologue -- but now another politician was on the business end of the punch line. "Senator John Edwards began what he's calling his poverty tour today," Leno announced. "He's visiting people who have no money and no hope. His first stop: John McCain's campaign headquarters."

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