Saturday, January 26, 2008
John Edwards was sitting on his bus, in comfortable bluejeans, pondering the uncomfortable realities of his candidacy. He hasn't won a thing, and he is sandwiched between two historic candidates, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, who are gobbling up attention like that first-generation video game, Pac-Man.
For two days, his "Main Street Express" lumbered down the back roads and two-lane highways of this state, searching for hope and a chance. Edwards was born here, and he won the South Carolina Democratic primary in 2004, and he became his party's vice presidential nominee after that, but this time it's a whole different deal.
"Well, I'm running against two candidates who've raised over $100 million each and have a lot of glitz associated with their campaigns," he says. "And I think the guy who's in the trenches just working, and that's me in this case, sometimes has trouble getting heard in that environment. And my job is to stay at it, just relentlessly stay at it, which is what I'm doing."
Edwards readily admits that he is an underdog here, battling some centrifugal force that he only partly understands. He is confronting all kinds of questions about his campaign, questions he knows will reach into his immediate future if he doesn't win Saturday or at least surprise people with an unexpectedly strong showing. Oh, the questions: What's wrong with John? Why can't he break through? How long will he stay in the race? Could it be that this is just a bad year to be a white male running for president in the Democratic Party?
"If you're me and you grew up in the South, as I did, in the '50s and '60s, I actually think the fact that we have an African American and a woman who are strong candidates for the presidency is an indication of a lot of progress in this country," he says. "So, it's hard for me to not be happy and proud about that."
And yet, he is still stuck in third place with all that pride and happiness. Does he believe a lack of media coverage is one of the reasons he has not been more successful?
"I'm 54 years old," he begins, measuring his words, "and I've been fighting uphill a big part of my life. . . . I'm just not in the business of making excuses. That's not what I do. Is it hard to get heard? Yes. Does the media play a significant role in directing people in a particular direction in this case? Absolutely. If you look at sort of where the vote is, it's almost directly proportional to the amount of media coverage."
An ongoing study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism placed Edwards a distant sixth among Democratic and Republican candidates in volume of campaign coverage last week; the former senator from North Carolina was a main newsmaker or significant presence in just 6 percent of campaign stories. Obama and Clinton? Almost five times the amount of coverage.
This is a source of unending frustration for the Edwards team. "It's been very difficult," says campaign manager David E. Bonior, the former longtime House Democratic whip. "We've been really trying to make news, working our hearts out on it."
This week, Edwards engaged in a hair-mussing fight with David Letterman -- "a hoot," the candidate exclaimed -- and appeared on the sultry Tyra Banks's show. The campaign also released a letter from Martin Luther King III, who met with Edwards in the midst of the food fight between Clinton and Obama surrogates over the proper treatment of his father's legacy. MLK III praised Edwards for having "almost single-handedly made poverty an issue in this election" and challenged the other candidates to "follow your lead, and speak up loudly and forcefully on the issue of economic justice in America."
The letter got scant notice. The coverage blackout has become such a running theme among Edwards operatives that the campaign decided to spoof itself, putting up a video on its Web site, titled: "Where Is John?" The video, set to the banjo-dueling-guitar music of the movie "Deliverance," shows newspaper headlines and TV news footage in which only Obama and Clinton are mentioned. It concludes with a Fox News clip in which pollster Frank Luntz asked a focus group that watched the recent Nevada debate: "How many of you thought John Edwards won?" Most hands went up.