New John Edwards Sells Less Biography, More Liberal Issues

Former North Carolina senator John Edwards, a Democratic presidential hopeful, details his plan for universal health care during a town hall meeting in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Former North Carolina senator John Edwards, a Democratic presidential hopeful, details his plan for universal health care during a town hall meeting in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (By Charlie Neibergall -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa, March 10 -- When he first ran for president, then-Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) was the fresh face in the Democratic Party, a perpetually buoyant campaigner who built his candidacy around his own biography and whose success in the primaries earned him a place on the 2004 Democratic ticket.

Fast-forward to today, and there is a new John Edwards on the campaign trail. His demeanor is more serious and his elbows far sharper than four years ago. Two years after leaving the Senate, he rarely mentions his time in Washington. Nor does he talk about his experience as Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry's vice presidential running mate.

His political positions also have more edge. An emphasis on biography has given way to a focus on issues, where there has been a demonstrable shift to the left -- on the Iraq war, health care and the federal budget deficit. The changes have given him entree to the liberal voters and constituencies who are influential in selecting Democratic presidential nominees.

Although he labors in their shadows, Edwards has drawn attention from the party's two glamour candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), this year's fresh face. Both rivals recognize the potential threat he carries to their candidacies, particularly in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, states where the nomination battle begins.

Edwards's moves have raised eyebrows inside the party among those who wonder whether the differences indicate a genuine evolution or pure political calculation.

"Some of what is being characterized in that way is the result of me being strong and clear about where I stand and not being soft and muddy," Edwards said during an interview Friday after a day of campaigning in western Iowa. "I think that we're in a place in American history where any serious presidential candidate and the president of the United States need to be clear what they want to do for the country."

But in the next breath he defended himself as someone whose compass has remained fixed. "I should make absolutely clear: Nothing has changed about John Edwards as a human being and my value system," he said. "It's exactly the same as it's always been, which is wanting to give people the chances that I've had."

Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist, said Edwards is running "a very different kind of campaign this time, with a very different moral compass." The differences, she added, are likely to draw scrutiny from his rivals in the primaries.

Steve Elmendorf, who managed Democrat Richard A. Gephardt's 2004 presidential campaign, said the changes could give rise to questions of authenticity. "His challenge is to show that, if he is different, experience caused him to change where he is," Elmendorf said.

Edwards advisers say some of the changes reflect significant shifts in public attitudes since 2004, particularly about the war. They also say Edwards having run before makes him a different candidate.

"He knows what he wants and believes it with a passion," said David E. Bonior, a former congressman from Michigan who is Edwards's campaign manager. "I think he's very confident about his values and beliefs and he's expressing that."

"This is not about small, baby steps," Edwards told an overflow audience in Council Bluffs on Friday. "It's not about political calculation and incremental change. We're going to bring about the real changes, the transformational change that's needed in this country."

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