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Jewish World ReviewMarch 3, 2004 / 10 Adar, 5764

Roger Simon

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Smarts | LOS ANGELES — Just how smart a president has to be is a matter of some debate. It is clear from past elections that Americans do not demand genius.

And no candidate wants to be considered an intellectual, which happily is not a problem for anybody in the race today. The last time anyone deemed an intellectual was nominated was 1956, when Adlai Stevenson lost to Dwight Eisenhower for a second time.

When Americans view the presidential choice as between brains and leadership, they almost always choose leadership. As Al Gore found out in those debates with George W. Bush in 2000, being the smartest kid in the room may get you a gold star, but not the White House.

And Bill Clinton warned his fellow Democrats last December that voters would "rather have someone strong and wrong than weak and right."

But candidates still walk a fine line. Become a "policy wonk" and the media will tear you apart. Appear uninformed about important issues and the media will tear you apart. Some fun this running for president.

John Edwards has based his campaign on an emotional appeal to voters from the very beginning. His speaking style, his warmth, and his ability to connect with his audiences have all been hailed in news article after new article. But in the last week, he has appeared to falter when it comes to a deep understanding of the issues.

Asked about threatened sanctions against the United States by the European Union if Congress does not repeal a corporate tax credit, Edwards replied with the political equivalent of "huh?"

"I'm not sure I even know what you're talking about," Edwards, a U.S. Senator in his first term, said. "If I understand what you're asking, and I'm not sure I do ... I'm opposed to us using our tax system to give tax breaks to American companies who are shipping jobs overseas."

Which is not, as it turns out, what the issue is about, but what the heck, have you seen this guy's hair? Fantastic.

Edwards's spokesperson, Jennifer Palmieri, admitted Edwards had a lack of familiarity with the matter, but invoked the leader vs. smarts defense.

"When the American people make a decision about security, about who they trust to lead the country, I don't think they're going to be concerned about a relatively obscure dispute between the European Union and the U.S. on a corporate tax credit," Palmieri said.

Democratic operative Garry South said at least Edwards didn't call Greeks "Grecians."

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But to the New York Times editorial board a few days later, he might as well have. Being a policy wonk is not exactly a bad thing when you are in front of the Times editorial board, but once again Edwards struggled.

According to a news story he "responded with uncertainty" about the violence in Haiti" and "seemed caught off guard by fairly standard questions."

But it wasn't a total loss. Edwards was, according to the paper, "lively and engaging, smiling and leaning into his questioners as he talked animatedly…."

The editorial board was so impressed with Edwards's ability to smile and lean at the same time, in fact, that it promptly endorsed Kerry.

There is, in fact, precious little difference between the two men on the issues, which is why Edwards constantly emphasizes his working class roots as the chief distinction between them.

Kerry counters that if we held upper-class backgrounds against presidents, we would never have had Franklin Roosevelt nor John Kennedy in the White House.

In any case, both Kerry and Edwards are multi-millionaires now.

While it is said that the two men differ on trade policy, the difference seems less than huge. Edwards attacks the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying he wants to take another look at it. Kerry defends the North American Free Trade Agreement saying he wants to take another look at it. (This may be another "huh" moment.)

Ten states hold primaries or caucuses on Tuesday, including California, New York, Ohio and Georgia and Edwards has been emphasizing his opposition to NAFTA, which he says costs Americans their jobs, in each one.

This may work against him in California, the largest state, however. "We are an exporting state," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, Senior Scholar, School of Policy, Planning and Development at the University of Southern California. "While our unemployment is higher than that national average, we care a lot about trade, especially our trade with Mexico."

She does say that Edwards is certainly likeable —"I saw him at a senior center in Culver City and they ate him up" —but that electability is going to beat likability this time around.

"Nothing matters to California Democrats except the ability to beat George Bush," she says. "And Kerry has that."

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