The Littlest Candidate
Edwards's end.


Michael Graham

“We have been the little engine that could,” North Carolina Senator John Edwards told his supporters last night, begging the question “Could what?”

Could carry any state other than South Carolina? Nope. Could beat John Kerry in Georgia, Virginia, or Tennessee? Uh-uh. Could stay in the race until the convention promoting an ideology or cause? That would require Sen. Edwards to have an ideology.

How about “Could carry his home state of North Carolina for the Democrats in November?” Even that’s a dubious prospect for an incumbent senator from the incumbent-friendly south who lacked the support to seek reelection.

So what did the Edwards “little engine” of a campaign accomplish? It won exactly one state. In other words, he matched the impressive electoral success of Howard Dean (he won Vermont last night). Oh, and he lost to Dennis Kucinich in Hawaii last week. Wow.

John Edwards did one thing very well, and that’s work the media. He looked good on TV, he gave great speeches featuring class-warfare themes and a simplistic ideology that appealed mightily to journalists’ j-school biases. And like a Fox TV reality show, the entire Edwards campaign existed only in the imaginary world of television.

Since losing Virginia and Tennessee on February 10, there has been no chance that John Edwards was going to win the Democratic nomination. And while the press corps is ready to roll on a “Kerry/Edwards” ticket right now, knowledgeable observers know that Edwards is unlikely to make the short list. He’s not a moderate, he’s not experienced, he’s not a policy heavyweight on matters foreign or domestic and, if you talk to voters in North Carolina, he’s not even much of a southerner.

But if you were casting a TV show where a dozen beautiful, female swing voters were battling for the attentions of an incumbent U.S. senator, John Edwards would be the go-to guy.

He played another important role for the media in that he kept the primary story alive. Watching the cable-news coverage of the Super Tuesday results, one would never know that the nomination battle had been over for two weeks, or that Kerry had locked down a win in every state except Howard Dean’s Vermont. The breathless, “this-just-in!” tone of the TV talkers was foolish and disingenuous on its face, but Edwards’s presence in the race gave them the cover they needed.

After all, the typical, inattentive voter watching at home saw Edwards on TV and thought “Hey, he looks like he could be president.” Which sums up the Edwards campaign in its entirety.

If you need any further proof of the irrelevance of the “little engine” campaign, note how much time Edwards and Kerry spent in the last 24 hours before Super Tuesday reaching out to Howard Dean’s supporters. Though Dean has been out of it for weeks, they knew that the Deaniac organization is still a political force, that Dean’s effort was a campaign of consequence.

There is no comparable “Edwards Army” or gang of “Little Engineers.” No, the Edwards campaign ends the minute the TV cameras cut off. There’ll be a brief flurry of water-cooler chat and then Edwards will be forgotten. In fact, thanks to the Bush campaign’s well-timed launch of its media campaign, he’s being forgotten already.

The Super Tuesday post-mortem coverage is filled with speculation that Edwards has now made himself a frontrunner for the 2008 ticket if Kerry loses to Bush in November. But without an ideology, or a base of political successes, or a group of dedicated followers, how does Edwards stay in the game the next four years?

Unless he finds some way to stay in front of the cameras–say, a recurring role on Law & Order–the Edwards’s campaign theme in 2008 is likely to be “John Who?”


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