Edwards still hopeful about nomination

Despite last-place status, Democrat `encouraged' about election chances

November 19, 2003|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ONAWA, Iowa - John Edwards likes to describe himself as relentlessly optimistic. That optimism is being relentlessly tested these days.

Once regarded by White House aides as the contender with the best chance to defeat President Bush, the freshman senator from North Carolina lags far behind in the Democratic race.

He's tied for last in the field of nine candidates, according to the latest CBS News survey of likely primary voters, and hasn't done much better in other national polls. In Iowa and New Hampshire, key early states where he has made a heavy investment in time and money, he has been unable to move up.

"He's smart. He's young. He has a sort of charisma. But it's like he hasn't found an avenue or an opening," said Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Edwards doesn't dispute that assessment but insists he's "very encouraged" about his progress. Other Democrats, however, regard him as a Southern-fried shooting star who burned brightly at the start of the 2004 race but now needs a series of lucky breaks to win the nomination.

His strategists always figured he'd do best when the action shifted to his home turf, the South. But with former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean considered the front-runner by many Democrats, and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry competing to become his main challenger, Edwards could use a late surge in Iowa to remain viable until the Southern contests in February.

For months, he has tried to break through the clutter of candidates criss-crossing this state. He gambled nearly three-quarters of a million dollars on early television ads in Iowa during August and September. He distributed a 60-page pamphlet crammed with ideas on everything from universal health care for kids to bio-refineries that turn cornstalks into energy products.

He also spent considerable personal time in the state - 40 days and counting.

Yet when The Des Moines Register surveyed Democratic voters earlier this month, Edwards was a distant fourth. Just 5 percent of likely caucus-goers said they would support him, a figure unchanged from late July.

The optimist in Edwards seizes on the fine print in the poll, which found that voters view him more favorably now than they did last summer (Gephardt, Kerry and Dean are regarded far more favorably).

Edwards knows that, with most voters either undecided or willing to change their mind before the Jan. 19 caucuses, he could still move up.

In an interview aboard his customized bus, the "Real Solutions Express," as it rolled across northwest Iowa, Edwards pointed to the positive response he gets at campaign events as a sign that he's stirring excitement at last.

"I think it's there," he said. "To me, this is just common sense. People have to get to know you before they can like you."

His ability to charm an audience is not in question. Edwards became enormously wealthy in an earlier career as a personal injury lawyer by winning lucrative jury awards (detailed in Four Trials, a just-released campaign book), then spent $6 million of his own money to win a Senate seat in 1998.

Just three years after entering public office, he was running for president. His smooth Southern style prompted comparisons to Bill Clinton. His fresh-faced good looks drew attention, too, and still do.

The other day, wearing chinos and an open-necked blue shirt a few shades lighter than his eyes, Edwards pitched his candidacy to 30 voters at the Onawa Cafe, on what this small town claims is the widest Main Street in America.

When he finished, a member of the audience, Ken Mertes, leaned over to a female companion.

"He's a pretty boy, isn't he? He's a hunk," whispered Mertes, 56, a local labor leader who said he has heard or met most of the candidates at least twice but is still uncommitted.

Because Edwards appears more youthful than his 50 years, his looks may also be a handicap.

"Maybe he should put a little gray there," said Carol Hood, a co-chairwoman of the Calhoun County Democratic Party, pointing to her temples.

"People think he's too young," she explained at a house party for Edwards that drew 20 activists to Colin and Kathy McCullough's lakefront home near Rockwell City.

Edwards was careful to work his age into his remarks at each stop on a recent two-day Iowa campaign swing. Traveling with him were his wife, Elizabeth, and their two pre-schoolers (an older daughter is a student at Princeton University). At one living-room event, the candidate had to interrupt the proceedings when his son, Jack, 3, grabbed the host's cat by the tail and refused to let go.

Edwards' lack of experience in government is another potential shortcoming, Iowa Democrats say, particularly at a time when Americans want to be reassured about their leaders' ability to prevent terrorist attacks.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.