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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)

That ambition has pushed Edwards to the left, most significantly on Iraq. Edwards voted for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war and defended that vote throughout the 2004 campaign. But he later renounced the vote and has repeatedly described it as a mistake. He favors the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops, would like to see all U.S. forces out over the next 12 to 18 months and says Congress should use its power over the national purse to force the drawdown.

On health care, he has proposed a plan for universal coverage that he says would cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year. He would pay for it by rolling back Bush's tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. When he describes the details, he says matter-of-factly that it could lead to a government-run, single-payer health-care system, a position no other major candidate has come close to articulating.

As some Democrats, including Clinton, call for a return to fiscal discipline in light of current budget deficits, Edwards takes the opposite view. What threatens the country is too little investment in health care, alternative energy sources, education and job security, he says, and he would rather do something about those than try to reduce the deficit significantly.

"I think he has a strategy to meet the party where it is," said veteran strategist Robert Shrum, who was an adviser when Edwards first ran for the Senate in 1998. "It's a party that wants fundamental change, not just in Iraq but on issues like health care. He's going to meet the voters where they are. I think he believes, and I think he's correct, that the old strategy of triangulation won't work in Democratic primaries -- and certainly won't work for him."

Edwards has prodded Democrats in Congress to get tougher on the war, and his most pointed rhetoric seems to have been aimed at Clinton. At a Democratic forum last month in Carson City, Nev., he said that, after six years of Bush, the country is ready for a president who is honest, open and willing to admit mistakes -- and then offered another mea culpa for his 2002 vote.

The implication seemed clear -- he was acknowledging his mistake while Clinton has not -- but Edwards continues to deflect questions on whom he is talking about. "I wasn't pointing at anybody specifically," he said Friday. He added that he has not singled out Clinton because "that sounds like I've made a judgment that she can't meet that test" of honesty and willingness to admit mistakes. "That's not what I'm saying."

Asked whether she has taken responsibility for her vote, he said that depends on whether she believes the vote was wrong. If she does, he said, she should say so. "I don't know whether she believes it. I can't read her mind," he said. But if she still believes the vote was right at the time, he added, "then she should defend it."

In comparison to the 2004 campaign, Edwards has relentlessly courted organized labor and hopes to win some union endorsements. He campaigned last year for state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage and appeared on picket lines with workers, and his health-care plan has won praise in the labor community. Campaign manager Bonior has close ties to labor.

Edwards also has wooed the Net-roots activists on the left. He refused to fire two liberal bloggers on his campaign who had come under scrutiny for inflammatory remarks published on their personal blogs. Both later resigned.

Last week, Edwards announced he would not participate in a Nevada Democratic debate, co-sponsored by Fox News, which Net-roots activists had been asking the candidates to boycott. His decision was made public in an e-mail from senior campaign adviser Jonathan Prince to the Daily Kos, one of the most prominent liberal blogs.

The debate, scheduled for August, was canceled Friday.

In the interview, Edwards said the activists' concerns had no influence on his decision. "I saw the list of debates that we had and the list of things we're doing specific in Nevada, and I said, 'Why are we doing Fox?' I said, 'No, tell them no.' " Asked whether he knew about the bloggers' concerns, Edwards said, "I didn't personally know, no."

He called on Saturday to say: "The correct answer to that is I was generically aware that the Net-roots hates Fox. I did not know about any specific activity about this."

Aides to rival candidates and unaffiliated party strategists describe Edwards as an undervalued stock in the Democratic race, despite the attention given to Clinton and Obama.

They believe he is well positioned to win some of the early states, starting with Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses. Edwards has led most of the polls of Iowa Democrats, and the organization he built last time is still highly regarded. His visit this weekend was the 19th since the 2004 election.

Edwards also says that, because many big states are moving their primaries to early February, the first four contests will be more important than ever. "Someone will come out of the early contests with momentum," he said.

To get that far, Edwards will have to prove he can compete with Clinton and Obama in fundraising, with the first indicator -- his first-quarter totals -- due at the end of this month. No one, his advisers believe, can raise more than Clinton, but party strategists say Edwards must not be a distant third behind Clinton and Obama.

When asked about those two candidates, Edwards offers a stock response: "I'm just honestly keeping my head down and doing my work." But at the end of a long day, he also added, "I've never worked harder in my life."

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