Edwards Turns to Non-Traditional Campaign Model

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 28, 2006; 6:38 PM

DES MOINES -- John Edwards violated all the old rules when he announced his candidacy for the White House on Thursday. No theme music, no balloons, no adoring family at his side, no stage filled with enthusiastic supporters. No stage at all.

He looked anything but "presidential," wearing blue jeans and an open-collar shirt, rather than suit and tie. He had no prepared text, speaking instead from a practiced set of talking points but with no guaranteed applause lines and few perfect sound-bites.

Most egregiously, he took questions from reporters.

One rule of campaign discipline dictates that a candidate never steps on his own message by speaking with reporters on the day he has something important to say. Reporters have a way of asking embarrassing questions and then running with the answers, rather than the candidate's intended message.

Edwards spoke to reporters, one after another after another, from the devastated 9th Ward in New Orleans. He started in the pre-dawn darkness with interviews on five morning television shows, declaring his intentions to seek the presidency even before what once would have been called his formal announcement. Later, he conducted a series of interviews with newspaper reporters, wire service reporters, local television reporters, cable television reporters, seemingly to every reporter or blogger who had traveled to New Orleans to witness the event first-hand.

It wasn't until he got to Des Moines early Thursday evening that the campaign took on a traditional feel, with banners -- "Tomorrow Begins Today," a big American flag, a blaring public address system and scores of loyalists gathered to cheer the candidate when he arrived after a quick shower and change of clothes.

Old-fashioned campaign oratory may not be not a thing of the past, but Edwards demonstrated in New Orleans that formal speeches followed by confetti, balloons and booming music are no longer necessary to launch a campaign. In fact they may not even be the preferred way of doing so, unless a candidate -- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for example -- commands, by dint of celebrity status or sheer political dominance, special attention.

In the age of the internet, all things are different, including how campaigns try to talk to potential supporters. For starters, Edwards knew that he could maximize the reach for a predictable event like the declaration of candidacy not by standing in front of an aircraft carrier, as John Kerry did in the last campaign, but by catering to the vanities of individual news outlets, who prefer their own "exclusive" interviews rather than taking bites from a formal speech.

That's why he granted one-on-one interviews with so many television reporters and one reason why his wife Elizabeth stayed back in North Carolina, awaiting his arrival on the weekend, when husband and wife will give their first post-announcement joint interview with ABC News's George Stephanopoulos.

Candidates have used non-traditional venues to launch their campaigns in the past. The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson did an interview on CBS's "60 Minutes" to declare his candidacy in 1984. Texas billionaire Ross Perot used CNN's "Larry King Live" to signal his desire to be president in 1992.

Edwards turned that model upside down, in essence choosing to give exclusives to everyone, confident that the more individual outlets he spoke to, the more time each would devote to his campaign. Piece by piece, he was trying to build a bigger audience.

Nor did Edwards hope to spread his message by putting himself at the mercy of others. Like all candidates now, Edwards has his own Web site and his own videographer. As he did some volunteer work in the 9th Ward on Wednesday afternoon, he taped a message that his campaign posted later that night on his campaign Web site and on YouTube.com. What he said in that video was nearly identical to what he said to a bank of network and local television station cameras on Thursday.

Smart candidates know the old command-and-control structures of politics don't work anymore. Instead, campaigns are all about building communities and speaking directly to supporters, whether through email or podcasts or what the Edwards team calls "webisodes." As part of his announcement day, he spent a few minutes answering questions on the Daily Kos site, an influential liberal blog.

Candidates are looking for ways to get people more directly involved, by challenging them to give money not just to their campaign but to worthy causes; or by asking them to volunteer their time in New Orleans (as Edwards has done) or in their own communities, or by challenging them to take direct action politically to stop a war or a dam or to enact a piece of legislation.

The 24/7 culture demands dynamic messaging and niche marketing. Edwards offered a window into that future with his announcement day activities. By throwing out the old rules, he hopes his second bid for the White House will be more successful than the first.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company