RALEIGH — Recently, the political momentum of Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has been about as predictable as the East Coast’s weather.
In early April, campaign reports from the various Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination shocked the Washington political community. Edwards — whom many had expected to trail Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and maybe former House minority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri in the so-called “wealth primary” — actually led the field in fundraising for the first quarter of 2003. (Some of Edwards’ donations, in fact, are currently subject to a Department of Justice investigation.)
About two-thirds of Edwards’s money appears to have come from trial lawyers, their employees, and their families across the country. Some political pros immediately pointed to problems with this. Too close an affiliation with the plaintiffs’ bar, they said, might tarnish Edwards’ image and weaken his appeal among Democratic-leaning or moderate business leaders. They further questioned whether the senator could sustain such fundraising momentum over time. After all, how many trial lawyer/donors are there to tap?
My money isn’t on Edwards per se, but it is on his continued fundraising prowess. His legal career and political connections are already well known, and will be a liability (or asset) regardless of his source of funds. Besides, in the South and Sunbelt, where Edwards will need to build his political base, there frankly aren’t a lot of reliable and generous sources of Democratic campaign cash other than attorneys. He’s got little choice here, and, yes, there are quite a few such donors left to tap.
Still, there are very real signs of weakness in the Edwards camp, too.
The most serious is the increasingly obvious flight of top-level staffers and consultants from the North Carolinian to other candidates. His rural-politics gurus have bolted for the campaign of Sen. Bob Graham, the long shot from Florida. His media maven, Bob Shrum, went to Kerry. Edwards’s press representative would later explain defensively that Shrum “just didn’t get John Edwards.” Right — that’s the problem. If an experienced hand like Shrum didn’t “get” the campaign, that’s a sign that something may be fundamentally wrong — as is the failure to secure some key endorsements in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Still, there is a scenario for John Edwards winning the Democratic presidential nomination. (No, I’m serious.) I still think the best bet for him is to be picked for the veep slot on someone else’s ticket, but the situation is obviously in flux. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry should probably be the frontrunner at this point. He’s got presence, experience, his Vietnam narrative. He’s got his wife’s money. He’s from next door to New Hampshire.
But Kerry’s flaws as a candidate are already becoming evident. He’s undisciplined. He has an overweening ego (yes, all candidates have to be self-confident — but not recklessly so). He has to split his New England base with Connecticut’s Joe Lieberman and Vermont’s Howard Dean. And his war waffling and the tripe about “regime change” in America is going to cost him, I predict, as he leaves the confines of Washington and Brookline and enters the real world.
Lieberman, for his part, is well known but boring. Dean makes leftists’ hearts flutter, but he also looks like a moron given what’s happened in Iraq (which is amusing, seeing as Dean has an even higher opinion of himself than Kerry does). Richard Gephardt lost ground with Democrats in direct proportion to his lost ground to Republicans in the U.S. House. Al Sharpton is . . .
Let’s save space.
So what’s Edwards’s scenario? I think he has to have a decent showing in Iowa and New Hampshire — third, or maybe even fourth, will do. Then he must solidly and convincingly win South Carolina (and come in first or second in any other primaries that might move up to the same day as South Carolina’s). Democrats in other key states must see Edwards as liberal enough for the base, but also salable to moderates and swings. His strong support for the war in Iraq will help — only Lieberman has been more hawkish.
Despite being a South Carolina native, Edwards is by no means a shoo-in there. Right now, in fact, he’s trailing Lieberman and Gephardt in the Palmetto State. And even when voters start paying attention to the race, and hear his accent and pedigree, there will still be no guarantees.
That’s why an upcoming event is so important for Edwards. On May 3, the nine main Democratic candidates will meet at the University of South Carolina for a debate, the first one to be nationally televised. George Stephanopoulos will moderate (unfortunately). It will be show-time for John Edwards, and he’s going to have to wow ‘em to prove that his naysayers are wrong — including the ones who, until recently, worked for him.
— John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, N.C., and publisher of Carolina Journal, in print and on the web at www.CarolinaJournal.com.