A Contender's Worn-Out Welcome

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, June 7, 2007

The dynamic performance by John Edwards in Sunday's Democratic presidential debate, assailing his competitors for the nomination, got high marks from political reporters, Republican politicians and left-wing activists. But not from the Democratic establishment. Once their great hope for the future, Edwards now is massively unpopular among party regulars, who neither like nor trust him.

The performances at the Goffstown, N.H., event by the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were error-free if a little leaden. Edwards, the third man in the big presidential field, supplied the fireworks by taking on Clinton and Obama. On the surface, he seems a perfect candidate: eloquent, smart, handsome and shrewd. Is he reminiscent of the two slick Southerners who were the only Democrats elected president in the past 40 years? Yet the prospect of an Edwards-led ticket evokes deep apprehension inside the party that he would be another flawed nominee.

His nomination is not that remote a possibility. For decades, Democratic leaders have exerted little influence on the making of the party's nominee, with decisions ceded to primary voters. Edwards is staking everything on the Iowa caucuses, where he periodically leads in the polls. If he begins the delegate selection process with a victory there, he could be unstoppable (as John Kerry was after he won Iowa).

Even though Edwards may end up being the party's nominee, prominent Democrats are surprisingly candid about him. Mark Siegel, a 35-year party insider, told me: "He came to Washington as a 'New Democrat,' but he's not that kind of Democrat anymore. He's into class warfare."

Edwards has not worn well with party colleagues. Campaign consultant Bob Shrum was enthusiastic about Edwards after working on his 1998 Senate victory in North Carolina and unsuccessfully advised Gore to make him his 2000 running mate. But Shrum chose Kerry over Edwards as his 2004 presidential client. In his newly published memoir, "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner," Shrum explains: "I was coming to believe he wasn't ready; he was a Clinton who hadn't read the books."

During the 2004 primaries, Democratic activist James Carville was enchanted when Edwards shifted his centrist posture to a populist depiction of "Two Americas." Carville told me -- and then repeated it on CNN -- that Edwards was the best stump speaker he ever had seen. When I asked him this week whether he still thought that was true, Carville replied: "Maybe he's not as good now."

In fact, Edwards's populist rhetoric sounds about the same today as it did three years ago. The big change is his performance away from the podium. Seldom has a presidential candidate undergone a trifecta like Edwards's this year -- reports of the $400 haircut, a $55,000 honorarium from University of California at Davis for a speech on poverty and the $500,000 hedge fund salary -- without his campaign imploding.

Such mishaps appear to be of Edwards's own making rather than accidental, as was suggested by the scene after the New Hampshire debate. Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, entered the spin room Sunday and took issue with passages in Shrum's memoir. She claimed Shrum misquoted her husband as saying of gays during his 1998 campaign, "I'm not comfortable around those people." At that same time, an Edwards aide attacked Shrum's honesty. Answering a book account of a nine-year-old encounter is not a good approach for a presidential candidate.

The ardor for a politically accident-prone Edwards has also cooled in the labor movement, where an endorsement from the Change to Win coalition led by Andrew Stern and James P. Hoffa is now far less likely than it was in December. Hoffa reportedly still regards Edwards as the most pro-labor presidential candidate but doubts whether he can be nominated.

So Edwards must rely on true believers who will brave the bitter Iowa cold in the dark of night to attend caucuses. That's the kind of voter impressed by Edwards lashing out at Obama and especially Clinton on the war. Iowa Democrats in 2004 pulled back from catastrophe at the 11th hour and abandoned Howard Dean when they contemplated the impact of a Dean victory. Party leaders hope Iowans will take a similarly hard look at John Edwards.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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