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Jewish World Review March 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Nisan, 5762

Matt Towery

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Clinton's influence looms | You may not have heard of Sen. John Edwards. But some pretty powerful forces will be sure that you learn about him soon enough.

Several months ago, this column was first to report that key establishment Democrats were quietly raising money and building critical coalitions in Florida's governor's race not on behalf of the presumed front-runner, Janet Reno, but instead for her lesser-known challenger, attorney Bill McBride.

And last week, our "Super Poll" of Iowa and New Hampshire voters showed that Clinton's former vice president, Al Gore, had a solid early lead for the 2004 presidential nomination among hard-core Democrats in those states. But the poll also suggested that many Democrats, if given only a choice of Gore and other known Democrats, might bolt from their party to form a cadre of "Bush Democrats" that could re-elect the president in a landslide.

These two stories may appear to have little to do with Edwards, a freshman Senate Democrat from North Carolina. But in reality, they serve to explain a growing trend among top Democratic leaders around the nation -- one that may well have been devised by that party's most brilliant strategist. No, not James Carville or Paul Begala. Instead, it's looking more and more like the master plan to rescue the Democrats might be coming from the man who managed to survive every jab and still leave office with a 60 percent-plus approval rating -- Bill Clinton.

It seems that many of the same friends who closely backed Clinton and who dutifully fought for Gore in 2000 are choosing to move away from more likely future Democratic nominees for state and national posts. Instead, they appear to be gravitating toward "fresh-faced" centrist candidates.

After all, it seemed curious that the same big-time Democratic fund-raisers who recently entertained Bill Clinton and his close pal and confidante Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman, also are holding a major fund-raiser for Florida's McBride this month.

Now, the big Clinton Democrat machine seems to be zeroing in on a potential candidate for the 2004 presidential race, and it's not Al Gore. Enter John Edwards.

Edwards is a "made for television" youthful-looking "moderate" who gives the appearance of pumping "new blood" into a potential Democratic 2004 primary field that's filled with time-tested losers. Does that description sound familiar? If not, one need only remember the endless mantras of "a need for a fresh face" and to "abandon the old party hard-liners" that we heard so often in the 1992 primary battle that Clinton eventually won.

Top Clinton movers and shakers appear to be inching into Edwards' camp. In New Hampshire, Clinton's closest and most influential grass-roots supporter is already moving to back Edwards in 2004. And those big money donors, such as a prominent Florida attorney who supported both Clinton and later Gore, seem to be favoring Edwards too. Palm Beach mover and shaker Bob Montgomery will host a $1,000-per-person fund-raiser for Edwards' Senate campaign fund in mid-March. Why is one of the nation's most successful lawyers raising money for a North Carolina senator who isn't even up for re-election this fall?

While no one will say so, it makes sense to presume that the concept of an alternative to Gore, one that might be capable of gaining back those "Bush Democrats," has been promoted at the highest levels of the Democratic Party.

And now, Edwards is starting to make his move onto the national stage. The "Super Poll" showed that no one in Iowa or New Hampshire had heard of John Edwards. To combat this name ID problem, Edwards of late has been a vocal critic of the president's nominee for the U.S. Court of Appeals, Judge Charles Pickering.

Edwards has found a mildly interesting issue in Pickering's alleged mishandling of a case that involved a cross burning on the lawn of an interracial couple in 1994. While Edwards' posture seems to some observers to be so much grandstanding, it nevertheless serves two purposes. First, it helps provide Edwards with increased name identification. And, more importantly, his performance appeals to the very hard-core segment of his party that wants a Gore-Bush rematch.

One wonders if the man who rescued a party held hostage by Jesse Jackson in 1992 -- Bill Clinton -- might be thinking that another Gore candidacy against Bush would likely resemble the failed candidacies of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

Of course, Edwards isn't officially running for president, at least not yet. Even so, insiders from Des Moines to Delray Beach, Fla., seem to be cued in on a secret: "the force is with him."

The question is, just who or what is that powerful force? With every new day, it's becoming clearer.

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© 2001, Creators Syndicate