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Jewish World Review July 17, 2002 / 8 Menachem-Av, 5762

Seth Gitell

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Meet the 'Clinton' of the 2004 New Hampshire primary | MONT VERNON, NEW HAMPSHIRE John Edwards is the new comeback kid. The North Carolina senator has assumed the title previously held by former president Bill Clinton, who awarded it to himself on the night of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. That was after his presidential campaign had bounced back from scandals over the candidate's dodging the Vietnam draft and his relationship with blond chanteuse Gennifer Flowers, allowing Clinton to finish second to Paul Tsongas in the Granite State.

Edwards hasn't had to overcome anything as sordid as Gennifer Flowers. His hurdle came in the form of NBC's Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Edwards's plan to position himself as 2004's Bill Clinton had been playing out beautifully - positive profiles in New York magazine, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair - until an encounter with Russert demonstrated the would-be candidate's inability to move beyond buzzwords.

During a May 5, 2002, appearance on Meet the Press, Edwards criticized Bush's War on Terrorism, but didn't say whether he would commit more American troops to fight in Afghanistan. Edwards also took issue with Bush's Middle East policy, but was unable to articulate an alternative. Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz summed up the interview in a May 10 column headlined JOHN EDWARDS FALLS TO EARTH, in which he quoted Beltway pundits such as Roll Call's Stuart Rothenberg and the Chicago Sun-Times' Robert Novak belittling Edwards's ability to dish out substance. And, in the wake of that Meet the Press performance, the New Republic predicted, "The law of political gravity says that what goes up must come down, which means that North Carolina Senator John Edwards had best prepare for some decidedly terrestrial publicity."

Presidential politics moved at a slower pace in 1992. Then, a candidate's rise and fall (or, in Clinton's case, fall and rise) spanned the entire campaign season. Now, just a decade later, a candidate can fall from grace and recoup within a few months - and there's more than a year to go until the election. All that opinion-leader blowback seemed a long way away last month when I caught up with Edwards in New Hampshire less than two months after his mini-meltdown on Meet the Press. He was back to echoing early Clinton - working from the same script that had won him glowing press notices. "I think people are looking for leaders who have principles ... things they've fought for all of their lives and they're willing to stand up and fight for them," said Edwards, standing underneath a tree moments before a torrent of rain broke over him. And later: "We saw back in the 1990s, when President Clinton was in office, [that] what works is being fiscally responsible and having balanced budgets creating surpluses instead of creating deficits."

Of course, there are plenty of differences between Clinton and Edwards - the first being their nemeses: Flowers is a pouty woman from Arkansas, while Russert is a stocky man from Buffalo. Clinton was a Southern rogue in the manner of Elvis Presley; Edwards, whose father worked in a cotton mill and who was the first member of his family to go to college, evokes John-Boy from The Waltons. And from the look of things, New Hampshire likes John-Boy.

Edwards made a string of Granite State appearances in late June - among the highlights, a meet-and-greet at a Democratic pig-roast, in Bow. I observed Edwards address a small house party in Mont Vernon at the kind of event New Hampshire is famous for - an intimate (fewer than 50 people) gathering where party stalwarts get to quiz would-be candidates. When I asked Edwards how he had recovered from the wave of criticism that he's not ready for prime time, he pushed through the question without hesitation. "I just behave the way I am, and I don't change," he answered, in his languid Carolinian drawl. "People in Washington are going to love you one day and not love you the next. You can't pay any attention to that. You just have to do what you believe is right and continue on the same course."

Edwards voices no ill will toward Russert, calling him "a very good journalist [who] asks very good questions" - a pragmatic move for an ambitious politician. Still, Edwards is more eager to focus on voters than on Washington opinion leaders. "I think what I need to do is do what I'm doing today and do what I've always done, which is to talk to and listen to regular people - what their concerns are - and to have a real idea and vision about how to address their problems," he says.

Edwards's confidence has its basis in certain facts evident to anybody watching his field of potential rivals. At 19 months before the 2004 New Hampshire primary, he's still the only credible new face in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Former vice-president Al Gore, a man who has been involved in the past four presidential races, is also likely to run, this time as his own man, with minimal reliance on consultants - a boast made all the more easily since his former strategist, Bob Shrum, is leaning toward working for Edwards. House minority leader Richard Gephardt is a veteran of the 1988 presidential campaign and long-time Gore rival (see "Clash of the Titans," News and Features, June 14). Even Massachusetts senator John Kerry, a formidable candidate and decorated Vietnam veteran who's gained notice for criticizing Bush's military leadership, has been on the national political scene for four decades.

Edwards is lucky that even for many core New Hampshire Democrats, he is a fresh face, a candidate who can appeal to activists worn out by campaign fatigue. He says as much when asked by a voter about the competition. "I think I represent something different," Edwards notes. "I have an outside-Washington perspective. And I have a view of the world that I think is similar to regular Americans'. I don't see things through the eyes of Washington."

Where the likes of Russert, Rothenberg, Novak, et al. want specific answers to tough follow-up questions, voters - even those who show up to quiz would-be presidential candidates - are more often than not just as happy with a string of glib generalities, which is pretty much what Edwards gives them. No smooth Clintonesque blend of policy expertise with the personal for Edwards. Still, it might be enough. The voters seem taken with the newcomer - despite his sometimes less-than-stellar oratory.

Exhibit A: when he got to the subject of income disparity between the rich and poor, Edwards seemed ready to discuss a substantive problem in depth - as if he were going to deliver some innovative solution that would restore the vital center of American politics. He started out promisingly: "I think you could ask the American people tomorrow - and I'm talking about people who live in rural North Carolina, who sometimes vote Democratic and sometimes vote Republican, I think we can convince them tomorrow - that every child in America ought to get a first-class education." And then ... nothing. While packaged as a unique statement delivered by a Democrat who managed to win an election in Jesse Helms's own state, Edwards's comment scaled the pinnacle of banality, if such a thing is possible.

Who among serious Americans - including the Republicans - doesn't think students ought to receive the best possible education? Policy fights involve how best to achieve this - not the general principle, which was all Edwards had to offer.

That said, the substance of Edwards's statement was far less important than its subtext. When he mentioned swing voters, for example, Edwards was sure to invoke their presence in "rural North Carolina," his own home territory. This was his way of reminding these Northerners that the people who ultimately decide US general elections are Southern swing voters - a not-so-coded way of warning New Hampshirites away from the temptation of supporting a well-known Northeasterner, such as Kerry, or a stalwart economic liberal, such as Gephardt.

During the voter question-and-answer period, Edwards responded to eight people, some of whom asked multiple questions. Of these, only one asked about the progress of the War on Terrorism. Another asked about the Bush administration's refusal to abide by international agreements - although this particular query focused on the environmental Kyoto Treaty. Others asked about missile defense and the right of the Democratic opposition to challenge and question the president. But on the whole, voter questions focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues, matters Edwards could easily address. One voter, for example, asked Edwards about his position on abortion. The candidate responded that he is a "strong supporter [of] a woman's right to choose." He then recalled his vote against Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum's ban on so-called partial-birth abortion. "I think I was the only Southern senator - Democrat or Republican - to vote against that," Edwards said. Certainly, his vote was admirable. It carried a degree of risk for a senator representing a socially conservative state. But any candidate hoping to capture the Democratic nomination for president better be solid on abortion rights.

Edwards, a former trial lawyer, did better on the subject of the corporate abuses that led to the demise of Enron and WorldCom. He actually moved the debate forward by discussing the corporate attorneys who sometimes aided and abetted the problems that permitted unscrupulous executives to engage in wrongdoing. "One of the problems we have is that the lawyer sometimes believes the CEO is their client because that's the person they know," said Edwards. "They have a relationship with that woman or that man who runs the company, and so that's the person they talk to. So the result is they do what that person wants them to do instead of recognizing they have a responsibility to the shareholders, the investors, the company, and not [to] give these CEOs the kind of leeway they want.... One thing we haven't done anything about is track down the lawyers and hold them responsible for what they're doing too."

Edwards showed himself at his best when making small one-on-one connections. Voter Peter Braen confronted Edwards with a three-part question, the second facet of which involved a piece of patent legislation called the Bayh-Dole Act. Braen contended that the act gave the federal government the authority to pressure prescription-drug companies into lowering prices. Edwards admitted that he had never heard of the law in question, but quickly focused on the central issue - out-of-control prescription-drug costs. "Because of the way the system is structured, when [the drug companies] file for the patent it gets listed in a book, and then if litigation ensues they get automatic protection for 18 months, and during that time they maintain their monopoly," Edwards said. "I've heard their profits are as much as $2 million a day. Who pays for that?" In agreement, Braen responded, "Oh, yeah."

By the time Edwards began his answer to the third part of Braen's question - about the need for the Democrats to voice dissent - he had fully engaged his interlocutor. Edwards recounted how he had confronted Attorney General John Ashcroft when the Bush-administration official warned senators against helping Al Qaeda. He also acknowledged that "in the harried environment of trying to do all these things, we're not as good as we need to be." Braen interjected, "I've been disappointed in the Democratic response to all this stuff." Edwards promised, "We need to do better." Braen upped the ante, calling the Democrats a "bunch of wimps." Edwards concluded by agreeing, "Yeah. We need to speak up.... People like Ashcroft are wrong when they say those kinds of things. Very dangerously wrong." The exchange didn't end there. Later, when the candidate took questions from others, he referred again to Braen's remarks.

Edwards's performance left Braen favorably disposed toward him. Following the talk's conclusion, he gave the North Carolina senator high marks. "I have not met him or heard much about him until today," said the voter, who noted that he was not aware of Edwards's appearance on Meet the Press but who has made a habit of visiting presidential candidates when they come to New Hampshire.

"He made a good impression on me today," said Braen, praising Edwards's "position on freedom of choice, his position on education, his position even on health care."

The May meltdown doesn't seem to have hurt Edwards with Democratic activists either. "I think he's smart," says Concord lawyer Chris Sullivan, who supported Bill Bradley in 2000 and has not yet made a decision for 2004, although he hosted an event for Edwards during an earlier visit to New Hampshire. "I think he's committed to issues that everyday people care about. I think he's got a great future." Referring to Edwards's fresh face, Sullivan adds, "I think that's part of his appeal for some people. Dick Gephardt has been coming to New Hampshire for 20 years. People know a lot about John Kerry. People are having fun learning about someone else on the block."

The local press also views Edward's foray into New Hampshire positively. The Concord Monitor gave Edwards a rave review with a story headlined EDWARDS DAZZLES DEMOCRATS. And where the local press leads, national opinion leaders may follow. Edwards had a near entourage of national reporters with him during the recent visit to New Hampshire. Reuters chief political correspondent John Whitesides came north to observe him. So did GQ writer Robert Draper, who got the fanatically fit Edwards to discuss his penchant for high-priced running shoes before the talk began.

The lesson for big-foot journalists is clear: the so-called Russert Primary may not be all that important when it comes to real voters. Edwards needs to impress enough rank-and-file activists in New Hampshire to enable him to finish second to Kerry come February 2004; his inability to inspire political columnists or pundits remains a distant secondary concern. That's why this John-Boy look-alike is still very much in play in the Granite State at this stage of the 2004 presidential race.

JWR contributor Seth Gitell is the political writer of the Boston Phoenix Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Seth Gitell