John Edwards: Carter redux?

January 09, 2004|By Jules Witcover

BOONE, Iowa -- It is an early weekday afternoon at the Ericson Public Library and about 60 Iowans have already taken their seats when Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina strides in, all smiles and hearty handshakes, seeking their votes in the Jan. 19 Iowa presidential caucuses.

He wears a dark blue business suit that contrasts with the heavy wool lumberjack shirts and wide suspenders of many of the men in the mostly elderly crowd that has been waiting patiently for his arrival.

Before Mr. Edwards says a word, his appearance makes it abundantly clear that he is an outsider in this small town northwest of Des Moines. And when he begins his pitch as a presidential candidate in his pronounced Southern drawl, the first impression is quickly confirmed.

But as these Iowa country folk listen intently, the boyish Mr. Edwards (age 50) does a fair job of dispelling that first impression. He talks about his small-town America roots in a much warmer clime, emphasizing his shared experience with the rural Iowans as the son of hard-working parents who worked his way through college and eventually into the U.S. Senate.

Here, as in other stops in Des Moines, Mr. Edwards tells the prospective Iowa caucus-goers: "There are two Americas -- one for the powerful and the privileged and one for everybody else," meaning all those gathered before him. Similarly, he says, there are two health care systems, two public school systems and two economies, one for the affluent and one for everybody else.

There are even two governments, he says: one in Washington for the lobbyists and pharmaceutical companies and one for the rest of America. But, he goes on, "this democracy doesn't belong to them [the special interests]. It belongs to you."

To reclaim it, he says with infectious enthusiasm, "you and I can do it together. Cynics didn't build this country, optimism built it." He invokes Franklin D. Roosevelt and Social Security and John F. Kennedy and civil and voting rights to make his case.

Then Mr. Edwards turns to the continuing catfight among the other Democratic presidential candidates here over past statements on various issues, from which he has conspicuously exempted himself. "Who cares?" he asks. "This is not about the past, it's about the future. If you care what one of the candidates said two days ago, I'm not your guy."

This declaration that he is above such haggling has become a key ingredient in Mr. Edwards' concerted effort to sell himself as the goody-two-shoes candidate. He does it much in the fashion that helped long-shot Jimmy Carter win the Iowa caucuses 28 years ago, preaching that the country deserved "a president as good as the American people."

In reminiscent words, Mr. Edwards says he wants to be "a president who is as proud about America as you are" and that it's "time for you have a president of the United States who believes in you."

Yet this latest Democrat with a drawl somehow manages to deliver the Carter message without the heavy dose of righteousness that turned off some voters in 1976. Faith as a Southern Baptist has been part of his life from childhood, he acknowledges later, but he prefers to keep it out of his politics.

Mr. Edwards in Iowa labors amid not quite the same public hunger for governmental goodness that helped Mr. Carter in the immediate wake of the Watergate scandal that brought down Republican Richard Nixon. But he does draw a strong audience response when he says he is committed to end "the nasty business of influence-peddling that has existed in Washington."

In his concentration on rural Iowans and his common ties with them, Mr. Edwards is taking a page from the 1984 Iowa caucus campaign of Gary Hart, who also worked the small-town circuit in his surprising second-place finish to Walter F. Mondale that year. It catapulted Mr. Hart into national prominence, a breakthrough the down-home North Carolinian is similarly seeking by playing nice.

His national campaign strategist, David Axelrod, says Mr. Edwards' movement is building at just the right time. He suggests a third-place finish here can achieve that end by exceeding the low expectations for his candidate on caucus night.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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