Clinton Without The Sleaze
Time to stop underestimating John Edwards.


RALEIGH, N.C.–So there you have it: New England and Carolina are headed to the big game, while the team from St. Louis just couldn’t seem to put it all together.

Pardon the obvious analogy, but how often do events so perfectly coincide? The surprising 2004 Iowa caucuses tell a number of interesting stories, some hopeful, some tragic (the amiable Dick Gephardt’s embarrassing finale), but what strikes me as notable here is how the political world continues to underestimate the not-so-senior senator from North Carolina, John Edwards, whose rise to a strong second place in Iowa was in many ways more impressive than Kerry’s modestly higher vote total.

Edwards, after all, had been essentially stuck in single digits in both Iowa and New Hampshire for months. At least Kerry had throughout 2003 retained something of a credible expectation to claim at least a middling third-place showing in Iowa. Edwards wasn’t supposed to matter there at all. More generally, his path to the Democratic nomination along the “electable southerner” road had been blocked last fall by Gen. Wesley Clark, who leaked his intentions on the same day that Edwards made his campaign official. The political pundits in Washington, in the early-contest states, on radio and television, and in the burgeoning blogosphere rarely included Edwards in their speculations and scenarios. His fundraising started strong in 2003 but then sputtered. Few national figures or politicians seemed to take his candidacy seriously, and the list of Edwards endorsees was arguably topped by actor and boy-toy Ashton Kutcher. “Dude,” one might rightly have asked, “where’s your star?”

So how did this relatively obscure, relatively inexperienced trial lawyer rise so quickly and perform so strongly in his first attempt at the office? I can’t say that I know precisely what made Iowa voters take a second look at the telegenic and upbeat neophyte. But I can say that it’s all happened before.

The North Carolina Democrat Edwards defeated in his come-from-nowhere bid for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1998, popular lobbyist and University of North Carolina vice president D.G. Martin, said Monday that the pattern was unmistakable. Martin, a Yale Law grad and former Green Beret, was assumed going into 1998 to be the frontrunner for the chance to take on Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. Little did Martin and the rest of North Carolina’s establishment know that Edwards, a successful Raleigh attorney (never before a political activist or major donor), had decided to run for the office. Just a few months later, Edwards buried Martin at the polls.

“I like many others really underestimated him at the beginning,” Martin told me. “We overlooked how well he can get to the bottom of what’s worrying people and respond to it.” As in his more recent and impressive effort in Iowa, Edwards ran in the Democratic primary in 1998–and later in the general election against Faircloth–as an optimistic fresh face not interested in denigrating his opponents or offering detailed political prescriptions. Rather, he filled the airwaves with soft-and-fuzzy ads in which he looked straight at the camera, broke into an earnest grin, and exuded empathy, marshaling a piece of evidence or two when it helped him but for the most part trying to establish an emotional connection.

Think Bill Clinton without the sleaze (Edwards is a dedicated family man who decided to enter politics partly to honor the memory of his teenage son Wade, who died tragically in an auto accident in 1996). And think about how effective trial attorneys use a sort of native emotional intelligence to observe, size up, and then sway courtroom juries.

“He brings this skill of listening–something that a career in politics doesn’t prepare you to have,” Martin said. Lengthy experience in elective office, and particularly in a legislative context, can leave politicians with an exaggerated sense of their own importance and omniscience. Edwards, a supremely confident man, nevertheless knows how to make other people feel comfortable, important, and powerful. It’s how he was able to win tens of millions of dollars for himself and his plaintiffs.

Many Democrats in Iowa apparently recognized this quality and liked it. As the tracking polls began to capture this effect with steady increases in support for Edwards, many Democrats I talked to in North Carolina, other southern states, and Washington, D.C. began to let relief and even hope creep into their voices. Facing a bundle of competitive races for U.S. Senate, governor, and state legislatures in 2004, these Democrats had grown increasingly nervous in December and early January as a parade of party dignitaries-turned-toadies such as Al Gore and Bill Bradley seemed intent on engineering a Howard Dean coronation. North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley, who will likely face a strong challenge this year, put bluntly last week what many other Dems had been saying, perhaps with saltier language, in private: “I want to run with somebody I can run with, not from.” It may still prove immensely difficult to defeat President Bush in the midst of a recovering economy and a largely successful war on Islamofascist terror. But the prospect of a Republican blowout fades with John Edwards (or John Kerry, for that matter) in the presidential picture.

It’s well past time for John Edwards’s political opponents to stop underestimating him. The surge in Iowa, while falling a bit short of John Kerry’s showing, still gave Edwards a stunning one-third of the vote and will likely boost his prospects significantly of placing in New Hampshire and of winning South Carolina and perhaps a couple of additional early-February contests in southern and border states. The race remains fluid. Howard Dean, like both George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988, could still bounce back from third to snag the nomination, though the fading of the Iraq issue in Iowa doesn’t bode well for him. Kerry comes home to New England for the next battle, which is good news, but then heads off to points south and west where he’s had virtually no campaign until now, which is obviously bad news. Wesley Clark waits in the wings–heck, maybe even in the dressing room–for his first audition before real voters.

Edwards may not win it all, but he’s going to the big game and bringing his upbeat brand of populist economics along with him. In my opinion, Republicans should hope he doesn’t make it to the nomination–but they shouldn’t rule it out as a possibility. Instead, be prepared to challenge him aggressively on the issues, not on his career or personality. Argue the facts, argue the law, but don’t argue the lawyer.

John Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based think tank, and a North Carolina political columnist and commentator.