By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 29, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Dec. 28 -- Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina launched his second campaign for the White House from this flood-ravaged city Thursday with a call for the United States to reduce its troop presence in Iraq and a plea for citizen action to combat poverty, global warming and America's reliance on foreign oil.
Edwards was sharply critical of the administration for its conduct of the war in Iraq, and he again recanted his own vote authorizing President Bush to take the country to war, which he called a mistake.
"The biggest responsibility of the next president of the United States is to reestablish America's leadership role in the world, starting with Iraq," Edwards told reporters during his morning announcement. "We need to make it clear that we intend to leave Iraq and turn over the responsibility of Iraq to the Iraqi people."
Edwards said he favors withdrawing 40,000 to 50,000 troops from Iraq as a signal to Iraqis that the United States intends to turn over responsibility for the conflict to the government there. Wading into the current debate in Washington about Iraq, he forcefully rejected proposals to send more troops to help quell the bloody sectarian violence there.
"I want to be absolutely clear about this," he said. "It is a mistake for America to escalate its role in Iraq. It is a mistake to surge troops into Iraq. It sends exactly the wrong signal to the Iraqis and the rest of the world about what our intentions are there."
Edwards also said he favors rolling back some of the tax cuts given to the wealthiest Americans by the Bush administration, and he proposed a windfall profits tax on the oil industry, saying additional money will be needed to pay for vital domestic needs.
"I think it's also really important that we be honest with people," he said. "We've gotten in a deep hole, in terms of our deficit. We have investments that need to be made." He cited help for middle-class Americans, anti-poverty programs, universal health care and energy initiatives as examples.
From his choice of setting to his message, Edwards used the opening day of his 2008 bid to signal that he intends to run a populist, insurgent campaign designed to show that he is not a candidate of Washington, in contrast to his likely Democratic rivals -- including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
"This campaign will be a grass-roots, ground-up campaign, where we ask people to take action," he said.
Edwards staged his announcement in the city's Ninth Ward, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina last year. He spoke from a debris-strewn property where a home was heavily damaged by Katrina's floodwaters; it was adjacent to a newly renovated property where he spent several hours Wednesday working with young volunteers to landscape the back yard.
Edwards said no city better symbolizes the "two Americas" -- haves and have-nots -- that he spoke about during his 2004 campaign. But he said New Orleans also shows the good that can come when people act for themselves, rather than relying solely on the government.
The day was shorn of most of the trappings of traditional presidential campaign announcements. The candidate appeared wearing blue jeans and a blue shirt, standing alone rather than surrounded by family or supporters. The only people in the background were the young volunteers he had worked with on Wednesday.
The announcement also highlighted the changing shape of political communication. Edwards had no prepared text, spoke briefly and took a few questions from reporters. But before that, he had declared his candidacy with a video posted through his campaign Web site on YouTube, with an e-mail sent overnight to supporters and with five interviews on morning television shows.
Edwards picked a traditionally slow news week to declare his candidacy, hoping to draw more attention to what is often a well-scripted ritual lacking in suspense. By moving early, Edwards also avoided being overshadowed by the anticipated entries of celebrities Clinton and Obama, who will make their intentions known in January.
Edwards begins his campaign well positioned to compete for the nomination. He tops public opinion polls of Democrats in Iowa, which will hold the first caucuses of 2008; retains a base in South Carolina, whose primary he won in 2004; and has built good relationships with organized labor in Nevada, which is scheduled to hold the second set of caucuses of the election season.
One question mark among the early states is New Hampshire, which holds the nation's first primary. Edwards finished fourth there in 2004, but aides say he has improved his standing there since that primary.
Another question surrounding Edwards's candidacy is whether he will be able to compete against Clinton and Obama in fundraising.
Edwards has been running steadily for president since he and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost to Bush and Vice President Cheney in 2004. He made his first post-election trip to New Hampshire in February 2005 and campaigned tirelessly for Democrats running in the midterm elections.
He set up a poverty institute at the University of North Carolina and, when Hurricane Katrina focused attention on the plight of the underclass in America, renewed his calls for a new commitment to eliminate poverty. He also campaigned on behalf of ballot initiatives calling for an increase in the minimum wage.
He sought to strengthen his foreign policy credentials -- a notable weakness in his first campaign -- through involvement with the Council on Foreign Relations. Asked Thursday about his national security résumé, Edwards said experience is no substitute for good judgment and cited the administration's record as evidence.
"We've had one of the most experienced foreign policy teams in American history," he said, pointing to Cheney and former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld. "They've been an absolute disaster by any measure."
Edwards, 53, made millions of dollars as a trial lawyer in North Carolina before entering politics in 1998. He won a Senate seat that year, defeating incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. He established a reputation as a quick study, a shrewd and tough questioner, and one of the party's rising stars -- prompting him to run for president after just four years in public life.
His 2004 campaign lagged for months but caught fire just before the Iowa caucuses, where he finished second to Kerry. He parlayed that success into a victory in South Carolina, and his performance in the primaries earned him a slot on the Democratic ticket.
After events in New Orleans on Thursday, Edwards flew to Iowa for a more traditional campaign rally in Des Moines, marking his 16th visit to Iowa since the end of the 2004 campaign.
At a town hall meeting, he fielded questions on energy, education, the deficit, Iraq and his past support for the war. "At the end of the day, I voted yes and I should not have," he said. "I'm the one who's responsible for that."