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Edwards is ready in the right places

Published March 11, 2007


Over the coming weeks, we will try to make the case for how each of the major 2008 presidential contenders could win the White House. These aren't predictions or endorsements, mind you, just food for thought. Last week was Republican Rudy Giuliani. This week Democrat John Edwards.

John Edwards ought to thank Ann Coulter for hurling her well-publicized slur at him last weekend. Her attack gave a burst of national attention to the overlooked Democrat well-positioned to win the White House.

In case you missed it amid the fixation with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, here's a quick update on what the former vice presidential candidate's been up to:

- Edwards has been the only candidate to move beyond broad rhetoric to propose a sweeping plan requiring everyone in the country to have health insurance by 2012. So far, he is setting the pace for laying out a specific and ambitious agenda and casting himself as the candidate for "transformational change."

- Having unambiguously declared he was wrong voting to authorize invading Iraq, Edwards has staked out a sharper antiwar stance than Clinton or Obama.

- Along with creating the most sophisticated Internet operation of any campaign, Edwards spent the last two years building formidable grass-roots organizations in key early election states like Iowa.

- He has aggressively courted labor organizations, from rallying alongside janitors at the University of Miami to speaking across the country to assorted locals. His campaign manager, former Michigan Rep. David Bonior, has deep ties to labor.

- Edwards, 53, maintains the sunny charisma from his 2004 campaign, but he is no longer the same scripted sound-bite politician. At a time when voters supposedly crave authenticity, the new Edwards is blunt, relaxed and even prone to admit occasionally, "I don't know."

"The Straight Talk Express is no longer John McCain. The Straight Talk Express is now John Edwards," said Tampa-based Democratic consultant Bernie Campbell, who has no trouble making the case for Edwards' winning the Democratic nomination.

"He wins because of organization in early states, especially Iowa where he's been on the ground since '04," Campbell said.

Just last week, the Edwards campaign sent 70,000 DVDs on his health care plan to Iowa caucusgoers. And 100 Iowa activists who had been backing former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack for president jumped to Edwards.

National polls consistently show Sen. Hillary Clinton comfortably ahead, followed by Barack Obama and then Edwards in third place. Forget them. What matters is the landscape in the early voting states, and those first contests could well slingshot Edwards to the nomination.

Here's the plausible scenario: He wins the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14 thanks to his long-standing relationships and ground organization. Then he wins the Nevada caucuses on Jan. 19 with a big assist from unions there. He finishes strong in New Hampshire's Jan. 22 primary, and wins his native South Carolina on Feb. 2.

It's unclear for now where Florida's primary will fit into that early schedule. But a series of early wins will propel any candidate into the slew of primaries set for Feb. 5, which effectively becomes a national primary day.

"It's pretty daunting in those first four states for Hillary and Obama, and Edwards is in a pretty strong position," said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, a top Democratic fundraiser backing Edwards. "The national primary is in large part about what happens as a result of momentum from the early states."

The path for Edwards would be much simpler, of course, without Barack Obama's winning so much attention as the fresh-face alternative to Clinton.

But Obama is still an untested candidate who, unlike Edwards, has not experienced the extraordinary rigor and scrutiny of a marathon presidential campaign. Which helps explain why Edwards, not Obama, was the second most popular choice for Democratic National Committee insiders polled recently by the Los Angeles Times.

"That experience is very significant," said Jonathan Prince, Edwards' deputy campaign manager. "It gives him a calm confidence that only somebody who's been through it has. It gives you the discipline to stay focused on what really matters and stay out of the sort of food fights that distract other candidates."

Edwards has positioned himself left of the top-tier Democrats. In a general election he'll be attacked for advocating higher taxes on the wealthy to finance his health care plan and for refusing to fire two bloggers on his payroll who made vulgar antireligion comments.

Remember, though, that the only successful Democratic presidential candidates in the last 40 years have had Southern drawls, like Edwards.

The son of a mill worker from the Carolinas has the cultural connections to get away with a liberal agenda far easier than a Northeasterner. His populist agenda is exactly the kind of message that in 2006 helped Democrats win red states like Virginia and Montana.

The electoral map looks better for Democrats in 2008 than 2004, with Democrats gaining ground in the West and Midwest. If Iraq remains a mess and the president's approval ratings in the tank, any number of Democrats can win.

Sure, the national polls favor Clinton and Obama. But while they swallow much of the media attention, Edwards is busy laying a foundation.

So keep an eye on the token white male in the Democrats' top tier.

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or

[Last modified March 11, 2007, 01:16:05]

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