Edwards Aims To Focus on The Positive
Candidate Says Anger At Bush Won't Prevail
By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2003; Page A01
Democratic presidential contender John Edwards said yesterday that beneath their deep anger at President Bush, Democratic voters have a strong yearning for a positive message that the party's eventual presidential nominee must convey to have any chance of defeating Bush next November.
After months of almost nonstop campaigning in the key early states in the nomination process, the senator from North Carolina said he is convinced that voters "need leaders who are running for president who aren't talking about what's wrong, but talking about what we together can do to make it right. And I think that's the component I absolutely believe will decide this election at the end of the day."
He said that Bush may be hampered next year by the state of the economy and the situation in Iraq, "but as long as we're not getting people inspired and excited about what we can do for this country, we will not win this election."
Edwards made the remarks in an interview with editors and reporters of The Washington Post. He did not direct his comments at any of his rivals for the Democratic nomination in particular.
But his strategic analysis of the presidential race appeared to apply most directly to former Vermont governor Howard Dean, whose early and angry assault on Bush and the war in Iraq has vaulted him to a fundraising advantage among the Democrats and a strong lead in the polls in New Hampshire, the site of the first primary.
"It is true that you can get Democratic activists on their feet cheering much more quickly bashing George Bush than any other way," Edwards said. "But remember, we're going through a process here and people are looking for a president. They're not looking for somebody who can just beat up George Bush. They're looking for someone who can inspire them and lead them."
That is why, Edwards indicated, he harbors hope that he can win the nomination despite trailing Dean and others in public opinion polls. "It's one thing, in July, to say, 'I like that guy. He's really tough on Bush,' " Edwards said. "Well, they're not electing a president in July. Come January and February, they're looking for a leader."
Edwards also discussed the tactics of the campaign, laying down markers he said he must meet to be successful. He said he must finish third or a close fourth in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, where the leading contenders are Dean and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who is from neighboring Missouri.
Edwards said he must finish at least third in the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary, where polls show Dean leading Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), a fellow New Englander. A week later, on Feb. 3, Edwards will face what he acknowledged will be the most critical early test of his campaign, one he said will determine whether he will survive deeper into the nominating process.
"Oh, I need to win South Carolina," he said of the first primary in his native South.
Unlike Kerry, whose increasingly harsh attacks on Dean have so far failed to blunt Dean's apparent momentum, Edwards has refrained from a similar approach to the new front-runner. But discussing the recent flap over Dean's remark that he wanted to be the candidate of "guys with Confederate flags in their pickups," Edwards suggested that Dean has a profound misunderstanding of rural southern voters that would be fatal in a general election.
He said southerners resent "somebody looking down on them" and want "someone who they believe treats them with respect." The Confederate flag remark showed that Dean "did not understand that," Edwards said.
"You can't continue to talk like that," he added. "It won't work. I mean, I think there's a danger associated with the elitism in the Democratic Party that has that approach and attitude."
But Edwards said that it was to Dean's credit that he recognized he was "wrong about this" and that such missteps were "fixable."
In campaigning for president, Edwards said, he has learned that middle-class Americans are most concerned about jobs and, to a slightly lesser extent, health care, and that "George Bush will carry the weight of that."
"The way they think about it is they're scared," Edwards said. "They know they're too much in debt, they know they're having trouble paying bills . . . and these aren't poor people, these are middle-class working families and they know if something goes wrong -- this is one of the reasons they worry about health care -- they're off the edge, they're falling off the cliff. There's been a big sea change in this country in the last 20 years, and Bush doesn't see the sea change."
Edwards said that many Democrats also remain deeply angry over the war in Iraq but that "at the end of the day they want to know what you're going to do in practical terms." He said he tells them that "we have to get the American face off this operation" and make it more of an international endeavor, and said that seems to satisfy most voters.
What Democrats do not want to hear, but what he believes, Edwards added, is that "we have an enormous potential here to do a lot of good over the long term" by helping to transform Iraq into a democratic country.
As governor of Vermont, Dean enacted the first state law recognizing civil unions between gay and lesbian couples. Asked about the widespread expectation that Bush and the Republicans will attack Democrats on the issue, particularly if Dean is the party's presidential nominee, Edwards said he favors an incremental approach to expanding gay rights.
In the 1960s, he recalled, "we made extraordinary progress on civil rights but we didn't jump into affirmative action" at that time.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company