Monday, December 24, 2007

"In shifting race, Edwards aims for the gut"

Boston Globe:
Takes on Obama in bid to project himself as alternative to Clinton--John Edwards, who long has found common cause with Barack Obama in portraying Hillary Clinton as a defender of the Washington status quo, is now trying to distinguish himself from Obama by saying the Illinois senator lacks the toughness to upend the Washington order.
Over the weekend, the two sparred after Obama charged Edwards with hypocrisy for benefiting from television ads by an independent group while condemning the role of special interests in politics. The Edwards campaign said there was nothing it could legally do to stop the ads, and that Obama's attacks were evidence the Illinois senator is threatened by Edwards's standing.

That Edwards and Obama have now taken to battling each other reflects changes in the Democratic presidential race, as the two candidates compete to be the reform alternative to Clinton. In a primary fight that many have cast as a choice between Clinton's appeals to the party's head and Obama's to its heart, Edwards is aiming for the gut.

"What Iowa caucusgoers are looking for - they're not looking for academic and they're not looking for analytical," Edwards said in a Friday interview with Iowa Public Television. "They're looking for somebody who speaks from right here, from their gut, and who believes deeply and passionately in what they're talking about."

On Saturday, Obama fought back by pointing to the existence of a so-called 527 group, headed by a former Edwards campaign manager, that is expected to spend more than $750,000 on television ads benefiting Edwards. Obama questioned his opponent's seriousness about changing politics.

"I don't just talk the talk, I walk the walk; I've been doing this all my life, and John has not had that same record," Obama said in Oskaloosa.

Edwards, a onetime courtroom lawyer, portrayed Obama, a former constitutional law professor, as cool and abstract in his thinking. "From my perspective, this is not an academic or a philosophical question," Edwards said. "This is about who has the toughness and fight to take on corporate greed and win."

It was a new front between two candidates who had previously kept their quarrels quiet. "The differences between Senator Clinton and myself are much more dramatic than the differences between Senator Obama and myself," Edwards said in early November, when both were trailing Clinton by significant poll margins in Iowa and nationally.

It may in fact have been Clinton who first highlighted the stylistic difference between her two rivals, when she said at a recent debate in Des Moines that "you can't demand change, you can't hope for change, you have to work hard to make change, and that's what I've done."

Edwards did not dispute Clinton's characterization. Lately, his demands for change appear non-negotiable, as he presents an unsparing vision of America in decline and forcefully calls upon his supporters to "rise up."

On Wednesday evening at a Manchester, N.H., theater, Edwards stood on a stage set for a production of "A Christmas Carol," an appropriately Dickensian backdrop for Edwards's stump-speech take on the state of the union. "The inequality is bad, it's getting worse, and it's getting worse fast," Edwards said of the "gaps between the haves and the have-nots."

In the closing days of his New Hampshire campaign in January 2004, Edwards appeared at the same Manchester theater and gave a version of his celebrated "two Americas" speech. Then, Edwards touched on similar themes of economic inequality, but without ascribing blame to a permanent conspiracy of special interests.

"Our government is selling out our children's future at the command of lobbyists and their corporate clients," Edwards says now.

Confronting "corporate greed and corporate power" has given his rhetoric a freshly vindictive edge. He now suggests a need for federal laws against predatory lending because those on the state level are insufficiently punitive. "If you have a strong law, they just go somewhere else," he said in Manchester. "We've got to put these people out of business."

Unlike Clinton and Obama, whose speeches can work systematically through a long list of issues, Edwards sticks with his theme of class-based alienation, delivered with a visceral drive that serves to demonstrate he is the candidate "who's ready for that fight, who's got it inside." When, in response to a voter question, Edwards says, "let me stray for 60 seconds," the digression takes exactly 52.

Where earlier in the campaign Edwards repeatedly attacked Clinton for abetting the Bush administration's agenda in Iraq and Iran, his speeches have followed the shift in voter attention from foreign concerns to domestic ones. Now, when Edwards takes issue with the role of "paid mercenaries in Iraq," his only reference to international affairs, it is intended as an observation about corporate greed.

"Domestic policy has become more pronounced because the economic anxiety people are feeling has become more pronounced," explained Chris Kofinis, his communications director.

Obama is exhibiting a similar impatience with economic discontent, delivering speeches peppered with the word "corporate" - one of Edwards's favorite epithets - and releasing an ad taking issue with the effect global trade has had on "ordinary people." "Enough is enough," Obama says in the ad, now on the air in Iowa.

Now, with shrinking distinctions between their platforms, Edwards is attempting to portray Obama as too naive to deliver results.

"He's wearing rose-colored glasses," Jonathan Prince, Edwards's deputy campaign manager, said of Obama. "It's nice in theory that you think you can get everyone to come together, but it doesn't work that way."

The suggestion that Edwards has the passion to lead an uprising while Obama offers mere uplift offers a new anti-intellectual tilt to the durable populism at the core of Edwards's appeal.

"It's a working people's message," said Dave Nagle, a former Democratic congressman remaining neutral.

"He's not being a nice guy about it this time, but it's still the same message."

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