Holding His Own

By Anne E. Kornblut
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

John Edwards is running a campaign of lessons learned. He is a repentant early supporter of the Iraq war, arguably the most vocal critic of the 2002 invasion among those candidates who voted to authorize it. He has a sharper edge than he had in the 2004 presidential race, and he is decidedly more aggressive and unvarnished than he was as John Kerry's vice presidential running mate.

Edwards has struggled nonetheless to keep up in the national polls with two of his high-wattage Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. Even in Iowa, where Edwards wasted no time returning after the 2004 defeat, he is lagging slightly behind the two. That has triggered unwelcome comparisons with former congressman Dick Gephardt, whose second attempt at the nomination, in 2004, ended no better than his first, in 1988.

Yet in a field of compelling biographies, Edwards has held his own. Alongside the most formidable female candidate and African American candidate in history, Edwards is running as the "son of a millworker," as he so often tells crowds about his populist roots, but also the father of a son who died in a car crash at age 16 and the husband of a woman with breast cancer. When his wife, Elizabeth, found out early this year that her cancer had returned, the couple held a news conference near their home in Chapel Hill, N.C., to make a surprise announcement: He would stay in the race. Many had expected him to quit.

That perseverance has become a hallmark of his candidacy; the Edwards campaign also took on a throw-caution-to-the-wind quality that many of his supporters admired.

A former trial lawyer whose forceful oratory has helped him stay in a strong third place, if not better, Edwards has been more direct in his challenge of Clinton, questioning her refusal to apologize for her Iraq war vote, accusing her of colluding with the Bush administration on Iran -- and, more enthusiastically at some points than others, arguing that poverty is the great moral challenge of the era.

He has fared well in Democratic debates, outperforming Obama even after the senator from Illinois forecast an aggressive match in Philadelphia on Oct. 30. Still, Edwards has faced challenges of his own, namely "the three H's" -- his expensive haircut, his hedge fund work after the 2004 election, and his sprawling homestead in North Carolina, all seemingly at odds with his regular-guy persona and progressive agenda.

He has also faced quiet accusations that he is playing his own kind of race card by arguing that he is the only Democrat who could win in the South in the general election -- another way of saying that the country may be more willing to elect a white Southern man than a woman or an African American.

As the only top-tier Democrat who has run for president before, Edwards will head into the early contests in January with some distinct advantages. He retains a band of loyal supporters in Iowa, the first caucus state, where he came in a surprisingly strong second place last time (and where, his advisers believed, he could have won if the race had lasted just a short while longer).

He has lost some senior advisers but picked up others, chiefly Joe Trippi, the rabble-rousing former campaign manager to Howard Dean. The first major Democratic candidate to introduce a universal health-care proposal, Edwards is hoping that his emphasis on domestic issues, rural policies and middle-class economics -- coupled with his sharp tongue and broad electoral appeal -- will be enough to push him ahead of Clinton and Obama, or at least keep him steady if one of them should falter.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company