By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 28, 2007
The emotional news conference Democrat John Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, held last week to share word that her cancer has returned brought them an outpouring of more than 24,000 e-mails in 24 hours. It also appears to have unleashed a torrent of online contributions to his presidential campaign.
In the past five days, the campaign received more than 5,000 donations totaling half a million dollars -- about 50 percent of the total it raised online in the previous three months, according to postings on ActBlue.com, the Web site that tracks Edwards's Internet fundraising.
Supporters of the former North Carolina senator say the surge in contributions reflects a favorable public reaction to the couple's handling of the grim prognosis. But several top fundraisers said it remains far from certain what will follow once the publicity about Elizabeth Edwards's condition subsides.
A USA Today-Gallup poll released yesterday found that more than a third of those surveyed think that John Edwards eventually will be forced to withdraw from the campaign because of his wife's illness, and professional fundraisers said that that lingering perception will not be helpful.
"What clearly happened last week is, he made a connection," said Tracy Sturman, a former finance director for presidential candidates John F. Kerry and Joseph I. Lieberman who is not attached to a 2008 campaign.
"But after that point, the question is whether donors will start asking, 'Why am I backing this person when there's this doubt about whether he'll still be running?' " she said.
Edwards's top fundraiser, Dallas lawyer Fred Baron, said yesterday that people may have been "too embarrassed" to approach him at fundraisers with such a pointed question, but so far no one has asked him about the campaign's long-range fundraising outlook.
"I know it's delicate, but I think if people had these kinds of feelings -- that they were working for a campaign that was doomed -- I would think they would express that to me," Baron said.
For the most part, the campaign's fundraisers have been pleased with the public's response to the past week's events. And several said they have taken a fatalistic approach to the future.
Ronald Feldman, a New York art dealer who met Edwards during the last campaign and has held several fundraisers for the candidate at his SoHo gallery, said his sense right now is that "donors are going to take a chance on him."
"Obviously, you hope he doesn't have to drop out," he said. "But donors understand -- they're all adults -- that making a contribution is a gamble. I mean, anyone could get run over tomorrow."
Silicon Valley philanthropist Deborah Rappaport said she saw the outpouring firsthand at a San Francisco fundraiser Monday night. "Obviously, Mrs. Edwards's health situation is on people's minds," she said.
"No one has a crystal ball that says any candidate isn't going to have something crop up in their lives -- an illness, an accident, whatever -- that needs to be dealt with," Rappaport said. "This is what they are dealing with now. They have been very public and open about it. As I've said to people: Just keep watching. This campaign is still going strong."
In fact, Sturman said, the campaign has been well served in the short term by the Edwardses' decision to go public with their personal health crisis. They've had, she said, "an 'Oprah' moment."
The couple's appearance on "60 Minutes" Sunday night, in particular, gave campaign supporters a lift.
"All of a sudden they were standing in front of you. They really opened up. There was nothing between you and them. It was like, wow," Feldman said.
Nadine North, who attended the San Francisco fundraiser, said she thinks that the couple's handling of the situation has helped Edwards break through, at least for a moment, at a time when media attention had been more focused on two of his Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.).
"I think people who skim along the surface might be concerned about his potential down the road," North said. "But other people will know more about him now, and I think will like him even more."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.