Showtime for Edwards

February 27, 2004|By Jules Witcover

CLEVELAND - If they gave Academy Awards in politics, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina surely would win in this year's best actor category.

Saying so is intended as a compliment, not derision. In the manner of a stage performer who has learned his lines perfectly and delivers them so deftly that he seems to be speaking them for the first time, Mr. Edwards is a master. He follows his self-crafted script unerringly, no matter how many times a day he speaks before campaign crowds, be it two or 20.

The Edwards speech unquestionably is at the core of his appeal on the stump. While he has won only one primary so far, in his native South Carolina, he clearly is this season's crowd-pleaser with his message of optimism and goodwill toward his fellow Democratic candidates (though definitely not toward his prime target, President Bush).

Whether that message, and Mr. Edwards' personal charm and polish in delivering it, will be enough to make him a credible contender here and in the nine other states voting Tuesday - including Maryland - is the question. Finally having the closest thing to a one-on-one confrontation with front-running Sen. John Kerry he has been seeking, it is his best weapon.

Before a jam-packed, cheering crowd at Cleveland State University here the other night, the boyishly upbeat 50-year-old son of a mill worker effortlessly recited the speech that makes a virtue not only of his humble beginnings but also of his storybook climb to fame and fortune.

Here in the heart of economic stagnation and wide joblessness, Mr. Edwards is a populist Pied Piper who delivers a bootstrap sermon that connects with the heavily middle-class voters drawn to him by having seen him on TV or by word of mouth.

If he is to achieve the long-shot breakthrough he needs to derail Mr. Kerry's rush to the Democratic nomination, it will have to come in a place such as Ohio, where his well-honed speech connects with struggling blue-collar workers to whom he claims to be a soul brother.

It is an audacious leap for this self-made millionaire who earned his fortune over 20 years as a brilliant trial lawyer. That his success came in the service of average working folks in cases against large corporations serves as a further link to the middle class he assiduously courts.

One of the most effective parts of the Edwards speech tells how he struggled to go to college and law school and then faced "the best lawyers money can buy" who wondered what he thought he was doing in the same courtroom with them. Well, he says with a broad grin, "I beat 'em, and I beat 'em, and I beat 'em" - implying that nothing is impossible if you work hard enough and if you're smart enough.

The Edwards performance is pure itinerant trial lawyer at work. He speaks to each new crowd as if he were addressing a jury, looking individuals in this expanded jury box in the eye as he makes his point, then pauses to let it sink in. In weaving his case against the corporations and ultimately against Mr. Bush, he presents himself once again as the unimposing country circuit rider against the privileged special interests, seldom varying a word in the smoothly honed pitch.

Here in industrial Ohio, Mr. Edwards picks up on an administration official's recent observation that the outsourcing of millions of American jobs is a "good thing" for this country. He asks the crowd: "What planet do these people live on? What would be good for the American economy would be to outsource this administration!" - as cheers erupt.

Up to now, the Edwards speech has won more raves about his talent as a political performer - an "actor," if you will - than votes in the string of primaries in which he has played a supporting role on the road to the more serious and politically experienced Massachusetts senator and Vietnam War veteran.

But now, with Mr. Edwards finally sharing the spotlight with Mr. Kerry, it's showtime at the ballot box. He must convert the applause to victory in Ohio or elsewhere in the North on Tuesday or find himself running out of curtain calls.

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

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