Monday, April 09, 2007

First Impression: John Edwards


This will be the first in a series of reports on the Democratic and Republican candidates as they make their rounds here in eastern Iowa, because even though the presidential election has little to do with public diplomacy it does have to do with soft power—reputation, branding, recovery from setbacks, long-term message management.

Iowa provides unique opportunities to vet presidential candidates early. For example, on Tuesday, April 3, I had the choice of seeing Hillary Clinton in Iowa City, or John Edwards or Rudolph Giuliani at separate events in nearby Cedar Rapids.

I chose to see Edwards because he threatens to disrupt the Clinton “inevitability” strategy which reportedly is playing out even at the local level; I read a newspaper account claiming that even minor-league Iowa Democratic officials are being buttonholed by the Clinton campaign and told to endorse now—11 months before the caucuses—or forget any future consideration from the nominee-presumptive.

I’m not sure how well this kind of hardball plays here—I’m not involved in Democratic politics—but former governor Tom Vilsack recently got on board with a Clinton endorsement in exchange for help retiring his campaign debts—a rather naked use of the power of the purse.

The Edwards town-hall meeting took place at Prairie High, about two miles from the Cedar Rapids airport. Hundreds—I would guess about 750—filed into a gymnasium festooned with one giant and two merely huge American flags, plus banners relaying Edwards’s message that “tomorrow begins today.” The gym was harshly lit to accommodate cameras from the local CBS affiliate and others; sitting behind what was the “stage” by virtue of the TV cameras being at the opposite end of the gym, I stared into high-powered lighting for over an hour.

Campaign workers passed out the standard “John Edwards ‘08” placards to wave before the cameras and then, somewhat more cynically, a large collection of handmade signs saying things like “Live Strong Elizabeth” and “Iowa Is a Blue State.” I should put “handmade” in quotes because although they were obviously made by hand on posterboard with Magic Markers, they were not made by anyone who wound up holding them at the rally.

Two officials warmed up the crowd for Edwards: the school’s associate principal and Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller, a white-maned Vietnam vet who also worked for Edwards’s 2003-04 run at the presidency. Here I encountered the rally’s only technical stumble: After Zeller gave a rousing intro emphasizing his first-hand experience with Edwards during the last election, there was a gap of 7-8 minutes before Elizabeth and John Edwards entered the gymnasium.

Still, the place went nuts—the crowd on its feet, applause, cheering, the former senator and his wife making their way, Moses-like, through the slowly parting sea of handshakes.

John Edwards gave a short talk warning against candidates who don’t give specifics about their policy plans, a clear shot at Barack Obama and an echo of last week’s Big Horserace Question about the Illinois senator: Isn’t he a little weak on specifics? Edwards also stated that he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq sooner than later, and outlined a healthcare plan that would put the country on the road to single-payer coverage. Both these lines got lots of applause.

In fact, the line I remember getting the most applause (besides curse-this-awful-war sentiments) was Edwards’s line about how his healthcare plan would eliminate pre-existing conditions. People connected very strongly with this idea, and I think this issue is one to watch through the remainder of the primaries.

Edwards, a former trial attorney, seemed to enjoy one-on-one interactions during the Q&A session. One questioner put him in Tony Blair’s shoes regarding the captured sailors: What would he do as commander-in-chief had the sailors been Americans? Edwards answered that he would first try to ascertain the facts; if U.S. sailors had indeed been trespassing, he would have no trouble apologizing—unlike the current president, he implied. But if U.S. sailors had been seized unfairly, he would have demanded their return and sent his secretary of state directly to Tehran to negotiate, another unsubtle jab at the Bush administration, whose secretary of state sometimes seems to operate only at the grand-strategic level.

I asked Edwards how he’d gone from an undergraduate degree in textile design (I believe) to a career in the law, and how that would inform his presidency. He answered that his father had been a mill worker, so that was one factor; but he’d also been concerned with being able to make a living once he got out of college, which ruled out a liberal-arts degree. (This got some polite chuckles.) Edwards insisted that he’d always wanted to be a lawyer, and thus his textile degree was a pragmatic move to be able to have an income until he could get into law school.

He then connected this remark with the second part of my question, saying that his career helping defend (mostly) little guys had given him empathy with them, and that this would influence an Edwards presidency.

It’s hard to overstate how focused Edwards is in answering this and other questions. He simply never takes his eyes off whoever asks him a question unless it is briefly, for the dramatic effect of including the rest of the audience in his reply. This makes him a potentially superb one-on-one campaigner—a crucial quality as the money primary continues and Edwards has to grip and grin with ever-increasing numbers of donors.

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