"So what is he like?"
My friends -- especially women -- keep asking me about Sen. John Edwards, because as a reporter for NBC and MSNBC, I was embedded with him through six months' worth of speeches, thousands of miles and countless cans of Diet Coke -- straight through Super Tuesday.
Like many of the voters I talked to along the way, I found Edwards likable, positive, energetic, charismatic, down-to-earth and a good campaigner. He's also intensely competitive and plays for keeps. He is a millionaire who successfully presents himself as someone who stands up for the little guy after living the American dream. But some voters -- and I found myself agreeing with them at times -- also found him inexperienced and a little bit smooth.
Of course, that was back during the early primaries, when the voters were almost all Democrats. Now that he is campaigning against President Bush and Vice President Cheney, he can expect his audiences to be a tougher sell -- and perhaps even as challenging as the Republican protesters who once greeted him in South Carolina with signs that read: "No Experience" and "Ambulance Chaser."
So what can we expect of Edwards over the next four months? Unlike his running mate, Sen. John Kerry, who can sometimes seem grim at the podium, Edwards is a happy warrior who clearly enjoys himself on the stump. Mid-speech, he sometimes interrupts himself, and tells his audience with a grin, "I just hope you-all are enjoying this as much as I am."
He is a crowd-diver, always game for handshaking duty; he told the reporters trailing him that he was frustrated when the Secret Service had to impose a buffer zone. He is particularly relaxed when he is touring the South, loosenin' his accent, playing up his small-town roots, and talking about sweet tea and fried chicken. The skeptics looking for the difference between the public Edwards and the real, behind-the-scenes Edwards will likely search in vain.
On the stump, Edwards the former trial lawyer approaches his audience as if it were a jury: I sometimes had the sense that he had calculated what would interest them and how they could be won over. Judging by his book, "Four Trials," his success in the courtroom resulted from relating well to people and working hard more than from book smarts or legal insight. Similarly, his approach to politics seems to be more about empathizing with voters and winning gut-level trust than about promoting new policies or mastering the nuts and bolts of polling and field organizing.
He makes no apologies for capitalizing on his natural skills. He once told a Democrat in Independence, Iowa, "You need a candidate who people find personally appealing, because that's when they will listen to what you have to say." On his campaign plane, chats with reporters were usually off the record, and even then, he never let slip the kind of comment that would have caused a fuss if it were printed. That's because, unlike candidate Al Gore, for example, there seems to be extraordinarily little difference between the public Edwards and the private Edwards.
Many voters told me they approved of the way Edwards did not attack the other Democratic candidates, but some said they weren't sure he had enough fight in him. When I asked the senator if he was too nice, he said, "You know, sometimes people are fooled by the exterior when you come from the South. To get to the place where I am now, you don't get here if you're not tough."
Edwards rarely lets on that he is an ambitious and determined competitor. One time, talking with reporters early on in New Hampshire, a bit of feistiness peeked through: He told us that his father had taught him that if you're in a fight, you should punch the other fella in the nose, and when you see the tears well up, punch him in the nose again. He wouldn't tell us whether he had put that advice to use, but something told me he had.
I was constantly struck by his extraordinary discipline as a candidate. When he is answering reporters' questions, he keeps his answers short and sticks to his message, even if that means simply repeating his talking points. As far as I can see, he is the only major candidate this year -- including Bush, Cheney, Kerry and Howard Dean -- who hasn't uttered a newsworthy gaffe, hasn't contradicted himself, and hasn't said something when he thought the mike was off. Once, when he was taking questions in California, the reporters became persistent on the subject of gay marriage. No matter how the question was phrased -- and there were six in a row -- he stuck to the answer that he had planned.
Regardless of his audience, his polished speech is so unvaried that his staffers can sometimes be seen mumbling the words along with him. When he speaks to special-interest groups, he barely tailors his speech to their interests, but he also doesn't pander. Last month, at the height of his "pick-me-for-VP" tour, his stump speech was still largely intact, even though his mission, at least officially, had changed from candidate to party builder. And why not? It was a good speech. Then last week even Kerry adopted Edwards's main theme: that Bush is creating two Americas -- one for the privileged and one for everybody else.
In a Cheney-Edwards debate this fall, Edwards will have the advantage of several dozen practice debates this year, thanks to the primaries. He did not often attack his fellow Democrats, but he was effective when he did so -- against Dean over the Confederate flag, against Dick Gephardt over NAFTA, and against Kerry as a longtime Washington insider. He is relaxed and engaging onstage. He got higher marks for style than for substance. He is a nimble debater who gave simple answers and stuck to his talking points. During the primaries he always denied that he was interested in the No. 2 slot, but one time, after his mike was unclipped, he had to admit he would relish a debate with Cheney. "It makes my mouth water to think about that," he said.
Because his campaign skills outstrip his resume, the rap on Edwards is that he makes a better vice presidential candidate than he would an actual vice president. He has never held an executive office, he has never served in the military and the largest operation he has run is his presidential campaign.
Unlike Kerry, he does not seem to spend his free time reading up on policy options and strategic issues. The brevity of his answers sometimes gives the impression that he may not be up to speed, particularly on foreign policy. One time he punted a question on Haiti, and a few days later a foreign policy adviser was on the plane to help Edwards brush up on the issues. To shore up his national security credentials, Edwards never misses an opportunity to mention his meetings with foreign leaders or his service on the Senate intelligence committee.
His decision-making style seems pretty direct compared with that of Kerry. While Kerry reoriented his campaign with several message adjustments and even a staff shakeup last year, Edwards stuck to the same strategy and the same staff -- even when his polling numbers were in the single digits. As a first-term senator, he does not owe people a lifetime of political favors, but also does not have a close circle of advisers who have been with him for decades, as Kerry has. His closest confidante is his wife, Elizabeth. She often chats with reporters about the kids and life on the trail, but there is no doubt about her grasp of politics or policy.
In Robbins, N.C., where Edwards grew up, he is remembered more for his sports than his studies. One classmate was impressed by something else. In seventh grade, she said, Johnny Edwards was the new kid at North Moore School, and when he walked into the classroom with his silver-capped front teeth (the result of an accident) and flipped his hair, "The girls nearly fell out of their chairs."
He is blissfully clueless on pop culture, and although he sometimes watches Scooby Doo with the kids, when I once asked him when he last saw a movie, he said he couldn't remember. His tastes are straightforward: Bruce Springsteen and Jon Stewart, Wendy's and Applebee's, Diet Coke and Budweiser.
When he's not wearing a suit, he is given to wearing preppy clothes and loafers, which make him look more like a rich trial lawyer than the rural son of a mill worker. "People think I look younger than I am," he once told me, and when his two youngest children start goofing off onstage behind him, he looks younger still. One time he walked into the hotel lobby with his kids, still dripping from the swimming pool, and while he looked like a regular guy, he didn't look really like the leader of the free world. Perhaps that is why Edwards avoids some of the photo ops that many candidates love: flipping pancakes, wearing a union cap, riding a motorcycle. While Kerry tries to lighten up his serious image by throwing a football or wearing jeans, Edwards often tries to do the opposite by talking policy.
One of the hardest things about campaigning, he told me back in Iowa when we were still riding around in a minivan, "is not having any time to yourself. You walk in the bathroom, there's four people waiting when you come back out." That was seven months ago, when he was a no-name long shot in fourth place in Iowa.
Senator, you ain't seen nothing yet.
Author's e-mail: email@example.com