Mary Bennett said she'd had enough of watching her party get battered on television during the four-day Republican National Convention. When she heard that Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards would be in the region, she got in her car and drove 90 miles from Chicago to be there in person.
She was not disappointed.
"It was a very positive message, and I needed that because the last four days, watching the Republican convention, I saw nothing but scowls," said Bennett, 53, a state government worker. Although Edwards rarely -- if ever -- scowls, he does heap scathing criticism on President Bush, blaming him for the evaporation of millions of jobs, for not coming to the aid of millions who have lost health insurance and for turning the Iraq war into "a mess."
Bennett liked the not-so-positive message, too. "It's possible to be critical and stay positive at the same time. I think he did that in his speech," she said. Historically, opposing candidates do not campaign during each other's national convention, but Edwards not only spent the entire week on the stump but also made repeated critical references to the GOP gathering in New York.
"You're going to hear a lot of negative attacks," he told audiences before unleashing a torrent of criticism on Bush's foreign and domestic policies. And less than an hour after Bush delivered his acceptance speech Thursday night, Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry appeared in Springfield, Ohio, and returned fire on what he called "anger and distortions" by several speakers at the GOP convention. Kerry called Bush "unfit" to lead and, without naming him, noted that Vice President Cheney received five deferments to avoid going to war in Vietnam.
The tough talk drew wild cheers from the partisan audiences, but not all Democratic voters were comfortable with the more confrontational style.
"They need to be careful," warned John Chobot, 74, of Delafield, Wis., who leaned on an aluminum fence with his buddy Ted Hoffarth, 72, at an Edwards rally Saturday in Waukesha. Even though Chobot was angry, referring to Bush as a "liar and a flip-flopper" for his explanations for invading Iraq, he didn't want the Democrats to be too negative. "I don't believe they should be negative, because this is what [Republicans] want. To put a lot of negative stuff out there and then the people will be turned off and not go out to vote."
Janet Ruys, who attended an Edwards rally Friday in Green Bay, said the Democrats need to fight back. "I know they're afraid to be negative, but if they don't defend themselves, it makes them look weak," said Ruys, 59, a homemaker. "It's just a bunch of lies and if they don't refute them, if they just take the high road, they could lose."
Edwards, whose upbeat persona won favor with voters during the early Democratic primaries, for the most part avoids personal attacks on Bush and Cheney. When he defends Kerry's Vietnam service, which has come under attack from Swift boat veterans whom Democrats accuse of working with the Bush campaign, he does not mention that Bush and Cheney managed to avoid the draft.
Still, he hits hard. He scoffs at the notion of Bush as a strong leader, sneering that the president has "led us from the edge of greatness to the edge of a cliff." After some speakers at the convention ridiculed Edwards's theme of "two Americas -- one for the privileged and one for everybody else," a bit of an edge could be heard in the candidate's voice when he suggested they were out of touch with the plight of working- and middle-class families.
"They ought to come out here to Pennsylvania and see what's happening in the real world," he said in Wilkes-Barre, as he chatted on the back porch of a home belonging to a man who recently learned that the factory where he had worked for 16 years was shutting down.
Scott Brown, 65, a retired math teacher who attended a town hall meeting that Edwards hosted Thursday in Norristown, Pa., said he had mixed feelings about how hard the Democrats should swing back. "I think people's natural impulse is to fight back, but maybe that's not the smart thing to do," he said. "Maybe they have enough faith in the American people that they're going to see through the attack and understand that jobs, health care, the environment and not lying are the important issues."
-- Vanessa Williams