[24 August 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
RALEIGH, N.C.—This has been a long, hot summer for Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
He has been dogged by a series of dust-ups, from expensive haircuts to a high-profile tussle with media mogul Rupert Murdoch. He has juggled his campaign team. He has been unable to gain traction, in the polls or in fundraising, against his chief rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
“I turn on the (TV) talking heads and it’s Obama and Hillary, Obama and Hillary,” said Wade Byrd, a North Carolina lawyer and Edwards fundraiser. “It’s so frustrating.”
Edwards’ troubles have prompted him to move more of his chips in the Iowa caucus basket—which is increasingly shaping up as the decisive test of whether he will be a serious contender this time.
The Edwards camp says that the problems of summer will be forgotten by the time voters go to the polls in January and that the former North Carolina senator will be in the hunt for the nomination.
“John has always had his own plan,” said Ed Turlington, a North Carolina attorney and Edwards adviser. “As I look at it, as we approach Labor Day—he has adequate money, substantive policy, and good (poll) tracking. I think he is on track.
“The goal is to get in the last two minutes with a chance to win. He is one of only a handful of candidates who will have a chance to win.”
Edwards’ poll numbers have shown little movement since he announced his candidacy in New Orleans in December.
He has been unable to make up any ground against Clinton and Obama. His only real bump in the polls occurred in March when it was disclosed that his wife Elizabeth had a recurrence of her cancer. That boost did not last.
While Edwards has raised $23 million, twice as much as he had in the 2004 presidential race at this juncture, he is not in the same league as Obama ($58 million) or Clinton ($53 million).
How does this compare with 2004?
In some ways, Edwards is in better shape than four years ago. The leaders in the polls in August 2003 were former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and then-U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri. Some were ready to write off Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. An Iowa poll in August 2003 showed Dean with 25 percent, Gephardt with 21 percent, Kerry with 16 percent, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman with 12 percent and Edwards with 6 percent support.
Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 38 percent of the vote. Edwards finished second with 32 percent.
Edwards seems to be struggling to find a voice. He has moved to his left since 2004 in an effort to outflank Clinton. He has fervently courted the anti-Iraq war vote, organized labor, the netroots and those concerned about poverty. He is pushing for universal national health insurance.
Four years ago, Edwards was Mr. Positive in dealing with his Democratic primary opponents. Now he is aggressively criticizing them.
Edwards has reshuffled his campaign team, relying less on former U.S. Rep. David Bonior of Michigan and more on Joe Trippi, the former Dean operative with a history of innovative campaigning.
“It’s the sign of a campaign that is constantly trying to figure out where they can get an opening—from Ann Coulter to the FOX News ban to attacks on Murdoch,” said Bill Carrick, a Los Angeles-based political consultant. “This is a campaign that is restless and is willing to take risks.”
Carrick was referring to the Edwardses’ confrontation with Coulter, a conservative columnist, Edwards’ urging of Democrats to boycott a debate sponsored by FOX News, and his opposition to Murdoch’s efforts to buy the Wall Street Journal.
When Edwards entered the campaign, he had a reputation as a highly disciplined candidate. He was also the only Democrat who had been tested in the fire of a presidential campaign.
But Edwards’ campaign has been bedeviled with controversies, some of them of his own making. Much of it had to do with Edwards’ wealth and lifestyle, while campaigning as an advocate for the poor.
Edwards took flak for a $400 haircut from a Beverly Hills stylist, for his recently built 29,000-square-foot house in Orange County, and for his year working as a consultant to a Wall Street hedge fund while criticizing such hedge funds for off-shore investments. His criticism of Murdoch boomeranged when it was disclosed that one of Murdoch’s companies had given Edwards $500,000 for a book deal.
“Right now, it is a badly wounded campaign and the wounds have been largely self-inflicted,” said Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University.
On paper, Lichtman said, Edwards should be doing well—the only experienced presidential candidate, a former vice presidential nominee, and the only Southerner. One has to go back to John F. Kennedy in 1960 to find a Democratic president who was not a white male Southerner.
“The paper qualities have been shredded by a poor campaign and dubious personal qualities,” Lichtman said. “Unfortunately, Edwards has been pinned with the charge of hypocrisy—a populist campaign and spokesman for working people with a $400 haircut and a half-million-dollar consulting fee from a corporation foreclosing on Katrina victims. That is hard to overcome once you get pinned with that label.”
Edwards is not trying to catch Dean this time. He’s going up against the powerful Democratic machine associated with former President Clinton.
Edwards had hoped to emerge as the leading Clinton alternative. But that role has been taken by Obama, who has generated a lot of the newcomer excitement that Edwards had in 2004.
“This is a stiffer field of candidates than the Democrats had four years ago,” said Rhodes Cook, editor of a Washington-based political newsletter. “That has left Edwards the odd man out struggling for traction.”
Edwards’ troubles can be seen in South Carolina, the state where he was born and the site of his major primary victory in 2004. An average of four recent polls in South Carolina show Clinton leading with 37 percent, followed by Obama with 29 percent and Edwards with 15 percent.
“Hillary and Obama have sucked all the oxygen out of the room,” said Dick Harpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic Party chairman who is supporting Obama.
From the beginning, Edwards has had a four-state, $40 million strategy—hoping to do well in the first two caucus states, Iowa and Nevada, and the primary elections in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Although Edwards has basically been stagnant in the polls since he declared his candidacy in December, he is no worse off nationally despite his problems. That suggests a loyal base of support.
No place is more important for Edwards than Iowa, where he has made 30 trips since the last election—far more than any other Democrat, according to IowaPolitics.com. Last week, Edwards took a six-day day bus tour of the state. In recent days, Edwards’ campaign has shifted staff from Nevada to Iowa, underscoring its importance.
A recent Iowa poll by Hart Research shows Edwards leading among likely caucus-goers with 30 percent, followed by Clinton with 22 percent and Obama at 18 percent.
Edwards hopes a victory in Iowa will sling-shot him to victory in subsequent states.
Most observers agree that if Edwards does not win Iowa, he is politically dead—a point that Edwards has come close to acknowledging himself.
Edwards, who began a four-day bus tour of New Hampshire on Thursday, is counting on some labor endorsements in September to provide some much-needed momentum.
He also has other selling points for Democratic primary voters. He has released some of the most detailed plans on such issues as health insurance. Edwards has consistently done better than Clinton in head-to-head polling matchups with prospective Republican candidates, allowing him to make the electability argument to Democrats desperate to win back the White House.
“I would love to see people, especially the press and the TV, to focus on electability and how important that is,” said Byrd, the Edwards fundraiser. “We Democrats have figured out how to mess this up enough.”
The Edwards argument is that things are better than they look. Even skeptics agree that Edwards is in a better position than more seasoned Democrats such as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut.
“If you’re an Edwards supporter, these are tough times,” said Carrick, the Los Angeles consultant. “But in my gut, he has every reasonable chance of getting into this significantly. All the polling suggests he has a good shot at winning in Iowa.”
John Edwards has visited Iowa, home of the first caucus, more than any other Democratic presidential candidate since the 2004 election
John Edwards: 30
Sen. Barack Obama: 20
Sen. Joe Biden: 17
Sen. Christopher Dodd: 14
Sen. Hillary Clinton: 13
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson: 12
The campaign money picture has changed dramatically.
Amount raised in the first six months of 2003
John Kerry: $13.3 million
John Edwards: $11.9 million
Howard Dean: $10.5 million
Richard Gephardt: $7.4 million
Joe Lieberman: $8.1 million
Amount raised in the first six months of 2007
Barack Obama: $58 million
Hillary Clinton: $53 million
John Edwards: $23 million
Bill Richardson: $13.3 million
(Federal Election Commission)