Pinning Hopes On Rural Voters
Monday, August 27, 2007
BERLIN, N.H. -- When a woman in the crowd shouted a question about education testing here on Saturday, former senator John Edwards made a casual farming quip.
"You don't make a hog fatter by weighing it," he said, meaning that constantly testing children does not make them smarter.
The line was, Edwards acknowledged, borrowed from a friend. But it reflected a persistent subtext of the Edwards campaign: the argument that he is the sole Southern Democrat and cultural conservative in the Democratic presidential field, making him the only top-tier candidate in his party who can appeal easily to white men.
In polls here and almost everywhere but Iowa, Edwards has lagged behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y) and Barack Obama (Ill.) from the outset of the marathon campaign. He has tried to provide a spark to his campaign with an increasingly sharp message that tends toward the liberal end of the spectrum on issues -- pounding away at corporate greed, calling for a revived union movement, promising universal health care and skewering President Bush.
Yet in a long tour over the weekend across a wide swath of the New Hampshire countryside -- by no means an Edwards stronghold -- he drew curious voters, almost all older and white, who said they either dislike Clinton and Obama or worry that neither can win.
In the small northern town of Berlin, one Republican woman who attended his town hall meeting said she prefers Edwards over all other candidates in both parties; he looks like her son, Bill, she said, and she liked the way he spoke. In Merrimack, farther south, a 63-year-old independent came to what he said was his first political event to complain about politicians -- and walked away saying he will consider voting for Edwards but no other Democrat.
Edwards, after initially pitching himself as the most viable candidate in Southern and Midwestern states, now avoids talking about his demographic appeal in speeches and forums. Asked about the subject in an earlier debate, Edwards said emphatically that he would not want support from anyone voting on the basis of racial or gender prejudice. He has been careful not to suggest aloud that the country is too sexist or racist to elect Clinton or Obama in a general election.
Rather, Edwards is casting himself as the candidate of rural voters, someone who understands the plight and values of family farmers (especially powerful in Iowa) and who could do in a general election what he argues Clinton and Obama could not: attract culturally conservative voters in states such as Virginia, voters who consider gun ownership an important right and aren't thrown by his drawl.
"I think this Southern Baptist has a better chance of being elected pope than Hillary Clinton does of being elected president in a general election," quipped David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist in Virginia who is advising Edwards and who helped get Mark R. Warner elected governor and James Webb elected to the Senate in the state.
"Rural America is pivotal. It's where the battleground is going to be, and rural America is saying, 'To hell with the Republicans,' " Saunders said. "But you've got to have the right candidate, one who can get through to the culture."
Asked whether his race or sex could benefit Edwards, Saunders said: "No comment. And I've never said no comment."
Edwards, asked in an interview what will propel his campaign out of third place, said that as voters draw closer to picking a nominee, they will ask the same question they did as the 2004 nominating contest reached its decisive moment: Is this candidate electable nationwide?
"I think John Kerry accelerated in Iowa and New Hampshire, partly, in January because people were looking for a winner," Edwards said. This time, he said, "I think it will be similar."
Asked what would make him more electable than Clinton or Obama, Edwards declined to publicly assess the political weaknesses of either. Instead, he alluded to his ability to reflect the electorate.
"I come from the same kind of background that most Americans come from," said Edwards, who regularly reminds audiences that his father was a millworker.
At times, the Edwards campaign has shown signs of frustration that his being a white man isn't earning him points when the news media handicap the contest. His wife, Elizabeth, caused a stir last month when she observed that "we can't make John black, we can't make him a woman" and that "those things get you a lot of press."
So Edwards has sought the media's attention in other ways -- his campaign rhetoric is becoming increasingly blunt, at times seeming to emulate the "straight talk" model that provided a short-lived boost for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) eight years ago. During his weekend bus tour, Edwards freely slung insults at the Bush administration and at the excesses of the Clinton administration, using hyperbolic terms that delighted the crowds. In response to a question in Berlin on Saturday about fully funding the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said he would "not have a political hack running" it.
"A mess" was how Edwards described both the southern border of the United States and the No Child Left Behind education law.
Asked later that day in Concord about the "don't ask, don't tell" policy covering gays in the military, he called it "an embarrassment."
Herbert Sparks, 63, the independent and part of the all-white crowd that came to hear Edwards in Merrimack on Saturday night, said he worries that some of the senator's strong talk is "just rhetoric." But Sparks said that after voting for Republicans his entire life, he will consider Edwards. Asked about Clinton, he said, "Oh, my God, no. She's a socialist." Obama? "No, I wouldn't," he said. "I don't think he has enough experience."
Another Merrimack voter, Kate Chisolm, 18, who described herself as an independent, said she so far prefers Edwards over the rest of the Democratic field. "He seems a lot more genuine and in touch than Clinton," said Chisolm, who will be voting for the first time in the primaries next year.
She joined two other first-time voters at the Edwards event; all three said that they were undecided but that they thought Edwards had as much a chance at winning as anyone. "I think anybody can win against anybody else," said Kiley Naro, 18.
And Beverly Chess, a Republican who had traveled from Norman, Okla., to attend her Class of 1949 Berlin High School reunion, said after hearing Edwards speak that she is pretty certain he will earn her support.
"I voted for Bush, but I kind of got disenchanted," Chess said. "I had thought maybe Barack, but I'm beginning to waver, and I like Edwards more. Definitely not Hillary."