By Shailagh Murray and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, December 29, 2007
DES MOINES, Dec. 28 -- Less than a week before voting begins, former senator John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama are engaged in an increasingly pointed duel over which man is the true messenger of "change" in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination -- with both drawing heavily from Bill Clinton's themes during his first campaign for the White House.
The two are battling on a trio of fronts, with each seeking ownership of the change issue, targeting Democrats who have ruled out supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and courting other candidates' backers who may be forced to make a second choice on caucus night (under caucus rules, a candidate must get 15 percent of a precinct to gain delegates, and supporters of nonviable candidates often switch).
Edwards remains strong in Iowa and is receiving a boost from outside groups running advertisements on his behalf. That external help has become a flash point between Edwards (N.C.) and Obama (Ill.), who has publicly deplored the anti-Obama ads and mailings.
In a speech Friday, Edwards launched a fresh effort to convince Iowans that he would be an aggressive advocate, comparing his fight for the middle class to the Revolutionary War.
"When America was founded, there were people who wanted to negotiate with King George. Imagine if we had followed that path," Edwards said.
While Edwards is in the midst of a "Fighting for the Middle Class" tour, Obama is holding "Stand for Change" events. Both themes can be traced to 1992, when Bill Clinton, then a young Arkansas governor, challenged the status quo and President George H.W. Bush while speaking pointedly to middle-class voters about their economic fortunes.
Edwards is launching an "Ask John" campaign, soliciting questions in all of Iowa's 99 counties (a move that his advisers insist is not prompted by news that Hillary Clinton is no longer taking questions at her events). In a sign of confidence, he is also airing ads in New Hampshire and South Carolina, the states with contests immediately after Iowa's, in which he promises to wage an "epic battle" to save the middle class.
But with Clinton dominating the issue of experience, change remains the central battleground for Edwards and Obama. In Friday's speech outlining his effort to fight for middle-class workers, Edwards described major turning points in U.S. history as times when people were forced to wage a battle rather than compromise. His advisers said the message is aimed as much at Clinton as at Obama, further highlighting the two-front war all three front-runners are waging.
Invoking history in his Dubuque address, Edwards said: "There were people who wanted to contain the trusts instead of bust the trusts. Imagine if we had followed that path. But look what happened when Americans of great conviction led America to stand up for its principles and reach for higher ground. We fought for change, and we changed history."
In an increasingly familiar dig at both Clinton and Obama, he continued: "Nobody who takes their money and defends the broken system is going to bring change. And unfortunately, nobody who thinks we can just sit down and talk them into compromise is going to bring change either. Why on Earth would we expect the corporate powers and their lobbyists -- who make billions by selling out the middle class -- to just give up their power because we ask them nicely?"
Edwards and Obama have built their campaigns around a similar premise: that Washington has been corrupted by entrenched special interests. But they offer it in starkly contrasting styles, with Edwards the angry populist who would break down the system by force, and Obama the reasonable mediator, nudging and negotiating his way to a deal.
But as Edwards has sharpened his blows in the closing days -- and remained very much a contender in the three-way race for Iowa -- Obama has toughened his own rhetoric.
"Hope is not blind optimism," the senator from Illinois said at campaign events this week. "It's not ignoring the enormity of the task before us or the roadblocks that stand in our path. Yes, the lobbyists will fight us. Yes, the Republican attack dogs will go after us in the general election. Yes, the problems of poverty and climate change and failing schools will resist easy repair. I've watched legislation die because the powerful held sway and good intentions weren't fortified by political will, and I've watched a nation get misled into war because no one had the judgment or the courage to ask the hard questions before we sent our troops to fight. I know this will be hard. I know it."
What Edwards sees as an epic battle, Obama sees as a "partisan food fight" by political insiders who have lost touch with the real world. In front of an overflow crowd in Coralville on Friday, he answered Edwards in a mocking tone. "We don't think Barack is angry or confrontational enough to bring about change," Obama said as the crowd laughed. "He says he might actually talk to some of the folks who we need to defeat, and so we can't trust that he's going to be a fighter for you.
"Let me tell you something, Iowa: I don't need a lecture on how to bring about change. Because I've been bringing about change my entire adult life. I didn't just wait until campaign season. . . . I've made choices."
In a veiled reference to Edwards's lucrative career as a trial lawyer, Obama noted that he had turned down high-paying jobs at law firms to work as a community organizer and a civil rights lawyer. The Obama campaign also circulated a fact sheet on statements by Edwards that suggest he once held a more accommodating view of Washington special interests. In November 2002, he was quoted telling a Fortune global forum: "No one here can be blamed for taking aggressive advantage of legal holes in our tax law. Doing the most you can under the law to create profit for your shareholders is your job."
In 1992, Bill Clinton was running against an incumbent president, but he also faced rivals including former California governor Jerry Brown and billionaire H. Ross Perot, anti-establishment candidates with a populist streak whose appeal underscored a deep restlessness across party lines. "I can tell you that all across that state, in the biggest cities and the small, rural areas, there is the same yearning for fundamental change in this country that I sensed when I first set foot in the snows of New Hampshire," Clinton said in Boston in April 1992.
This year, the frustration is far more palpable, but the stakes also are higher, given the Iraq war and the backdrop of a far more fragile and complicated world. But Clinton's argument remains fresh. "The truth is, you can have the right kind of experience and the wrong kind of experience," Obama now tells audiences at each event. "Mine is rooted in the real lives of real people, and it will bring real results if we have the courage to change. I believe deeply in those words. But they are not mine. They were Bill Clinton's in 1992, when Washington insiders questioned his readiness to lead."
Newly public documents filed with the Federal Election Commission this week could undermine Edwards's claim to the outsider's mantle. Those filings showed a hefty infusion of private money to the efforts of Alliance for a New America, a group that is promoting Edwards's candidacy.
The filing shows that on Dec. 19, the group received $495,000 from Oak Spring Farms LLC, a corporate entity operating from an upscale hotel on Central Park South in New York City. Land records and other documents trace the Oak Spring corporation to Alexander Forger, a Manhattan trust lawyer. Forger holds a power of attorney for Rachel Lambert Mellon, 97. Mellon, known as "Bunny," is the widow of Paul Mellon (who owned a home in Virginia known as Oak Spring Farms) and daughter-in-law of industrialist Andrew Mellon. The same Oak Springs group made a $250,000 contribution to the Edwards-affiliated One America group in 2006.
A message left at Forger's office was not been returned. The New York Sun reported that he said: "I'm simply acting on behalf of somebody else."
While Mellon's involvement in the decision to donate to the Edwards campaign is unknown, published reports and federal election records show that Forger has been a major supporter of Edwards's candidacy. Crain's Business Journal reported in February that Forger and "a group of prominent New York lawyers" hosted a fundraiser for him at Essex House -- the Central Park South address where his office is located.
Forger has also personally donated $4,600 to Edwards's campaign, FEC records show. Alliance for a New America reported in the same FEC filing that it had purchased $798,797 worth of television advertising.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk in Washington contributed to this report.