8/23/2007

Will John Edwards make it to Iowa?

When assessing the Democratic presidential candidates, the media tend to focus on the so-called "top tier" of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards. But recently, the Hillary vs. Obama storyline has proven irresistible, as even minute details of their campaigns can lead to prolonged news cycles, such as the recent dustup over Michelle Obama's recent remarks that were somehow contorted by the media to be some sort of dig at Hillary Clinton.

Other times the media focus on Clinton's appeal to voters who value experience vs. Obama's appeal to voters who value change and compare them directly. Never mind the fact that the so-called second-tier candidates have much more experience than Clinton and could offer the change Obama is advocating in terms of competence and new ideas. In light of all this punching and counterpunching with the media helping to gin things up between the two rivals, one candidate is getting lost in the shuffle and is struggling to stay relevant: John Edwards.

Of all the major candidates, I believe John Edwards is in the most precarious position. He is pulling campaign staff out of Nevada, struggling or fading in must-win Iowa, is way behind in his home state of South Carolina, and is trailing Clinton and Obama by wide margins in most national polls. Absent Chris Dodd, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson, John Edwards is commonly seen as the longshot.

How did John Edwards go from placing second in the race for the nomination in 2004 to being a near also ran in 2008? In my estimation, there are several root causes.

For starters, the 2004 field was much weaker than the 2008 field. Howard Dean, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt were far weaker candidates collectively than Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Chris Dodd, Bill Richardson, and Joe Biden are probably kicking themselves for not running in the last cycle when they could have fared much better than they are now.

Secondly, the John Edwards of 2004 had his message taken away by Barack Obama in 2008. John Edwards was running as the fresh face with the bold new ideas in 2004. But now Barack Obama occupies that political turf. The humble "son of a mill worker" narrative contrasted greatly with the pampered, well-connected Bush caricature. But now this narrative has lost a bit of its punch because voters already know who he is. And how can his personal story compete with the new kid on the block who has a White mother and an African father and grew up in Indonesia?

Third, Obama and Edwards are similar in that they don't have much in terms of political experience. Obama is receiving the brunt of this criticism now, but the problem for Edwards is that he cannot attack Obama for his inexperience without calling his own inexperience into question. So this potentially potent line of attack is available to his other rivals (especially the well-established Clinton), but not to him. Can you point to anything John Edwards has done since 2004 to buff up his political resume?

Also, in the current era of image-based politics, John Edwards seems a bit slow on the uptake. Voters remember how clueless George H.W. Bush seemed when he was at a supermarket and didn't seem to know what a scanner was. They also remember him sneaking a peek at his wristwatch in a debate. Older voters may also remember Richard Nixon wearing a business suit and loafers while walking on the beach. Michael Dukakis foolishly staged a photo op in a tank. There was also Jimmy Carter and the "killer rabbit." There was Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on the now defunct Arsenio Hall Show. John Kerry got caught windsurfing and probably wishes he never took that hunting trip. And there was George W. Bush standing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center before standing on that aircraft carrier under the banner "Mission Accomplished."

Image matters because those are easier to ingrain in voters' memories than detailed policy positions and speeches. Unfortunately for John Edwards, the $400 haircut story, the story about his personal estate, and the YouTube video of him fussing with his hair are feeding into an image of a candidate who claims to represent "Two Americas," but only lives in one of them. One could argue that people should pay more attention to his views on free trade, Iraq, and the environment than on cosmetic issues and quirks, but that's just not what people respond to.

And finally, John Edwards now seems to be campaigning as someone who knows he's behind. He and his wife (who may be doing more harm than good) are lobbing all sorts of charges and insinuations at the other candidates hoping that they'll stick. While Edwards may only be trying to keep himself relevant or in the daily news cycle, he's increasingly coming across as desperate. His wife has been throwing out a lot of incendiary and loaded remarks as of late while Edwards lauds her as someone who speaks her mind. The fact that he hasn't reined her in yet suggests that either he agrees with what she's saying or he's hiding behind her simply because she's a lot more difficult to attack, presumably because of her cancer.

Exhibit 1: John Edwards calls Ann Coulter a "she devil" and then apologizes for calling her names. Of course, we all remember how much he protested when Coulter called him a "faggot." (He claimed to be offended but then used her remarks to solicit campaign donations on his website.) So is John Edwards a hypocrite? In light of recent remarks made by his communications director pompously stating that "The American people deserve specific answers, not more rhetoric, and surely not more personal Washington-style attacks", perhaps he really is.

Exhibit 2: Elizabeth Edwards claims she's uncomfortable with the other Democratic candidates because she doesn't know what drives them to be president other than their own personal motivation. Is that why John Edwards essentially became Iowa's third senator after losing the 2004 election? This may sound cynical, but in this age of consultant-driven politics where polls and money are king, does she honestly think that people who run for president now do so solely for altruistic reasons?

Exhibit 3: Elizabeth Edwards laments that her husband is neither Black nor a female when it comes to media coverage. So why aren't the media covering Bill Richardson's campaign as heavily? Or is being the first credible Latino candidate not newsworthy? I think it's more a matter of both Clinton and Obama leading Edwards when it comes to experience, change, electability, and even likability.

Exhibit 4: Edwards' campaign strategist Joe Trippi thinks Edwards is the one Democrat the Republicans are the most afraid of running against. This was said in response to Karl Rove demonizing Hillary Clinton in what many politicos and pundits believe is an attempt to rally Democrats to Clinton's defense and nominate her because Republicans think she's the easiest of the Democrats to beat. While I don't necessarily discount this possible strategy, I think it's a bit of a stretch to say that John Edwards is the most formidable of the Democratic candidates. He was manhandled by Dick Cheney in the VP debate in 2004 and was unable to deliver North Carolina for John Kerry in the election. On top of this, rural Southern voters probably remember the question at a previous debate asking which of the candidates had a gun in the house. John Edwards did not raise his hand. So Southern voters may look at Edwards with suspicion. Clinton has a lot of goodwill among rural, less educated, and lower class voters, which is where she's performing strongest. Clinton may be polarizing and she may have her flaws, but she's a lot tougher than Edwards and has far better message discipline.

Even if John Edwards is able to emerge from these potential minefields unscathed, he is still in a political straitjacket because of the threat Barack Obama in particular poses to his campaign. Barack Obama and John Edwards cannot coexist because they fit the same niche. They also have similar weaknesses, although Obama doesn't have an Iraq vote to atone for. Because their weaknesses overlap so much, Edwards can't really go on offense against his nearest rival without having it bounce back on him in the form of charges of hypocrisy, which feeds into the negative caricature that's developing about him. Because of these threats, he doesn't have much room in which he can maneuver. But he can't simply keep doing what he's doing now either because he can't afford to wait for Clinton and Obama to destroy themselves.

For John Edwards' sake, he had better hope that voters (especially those in Iowa) don't pick up on any of this because if they do, his campaign is history.

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Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.