Richard Reeves

John Edwards: The Third Man's Themes

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- It may have something to do with being unchained from John Kerry. John Edwards was a good candidate as Kerry's running mate for vice president four years ago, but he had nothing to say -- or, more likely, was not allowed to say anything. Now he is a better candidate with plenty to say.

He packed them in here, right up to the fire marshal's limit of 500, at Shutters Hotel on the beach earlier this month at $20 a head. The event was sponsored by the Pacific Palisades Democratic Club, which got the proceeds, and most of the folks there seemed to think they got their money's worth.

That may not seem much compared to the millions Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are pulling out of Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Malibu. But the people who came to hear Edwards are loyalists willing to knock on doors and do other things beneath the bodyguarded dignity of, say, David Geffen or Steven Spielberg. "I know Clinton and Obama are the news," said David Clement, a former president of the club, "but they are going to leave 170 Southern electoral votes on the table in November of 2008. Edwards can get those states."

The front-runners are certainly soaking up media oxygen, and Edwards' early caucus and primary strategy of being the anti-Clinton has been blown away by Hurricane Barack. That, however, just might work to Edwards' advantage before this is over. His campaign is still pretty much below press radar, which should trigger comparisons to Jimmy Carter's successful run in 1976. The former governor of Georgia managed to craft and refine his message before national correspondents descended on the campaign and began looking for cracks and flaws.

So far all the national questions about Edwards have been about how far left he has moved since he was a senator from North Carolina and that he lives on 102-acre estate back home that is worth about $4 million. That is not likely to be an issue around here, where $4 million might not get you a decent house, with a view, on a quarter of an acre.

Edwards is a better campaigner, both smooth and passionate, than Carter ever was, but he is selling the same kind of Southern-accented populism-moralism campaign that worked for the 39th president. Here are some samples of standard lines:

"We are better than this. What's happening now is not OK in the United States of America. ... It is time to ask Americans to be patriotic about something other than war. ... The world needs to know who we really are. ... This is not about small, baby steps. It's not about incremental change. We're going to bring about the real changes, the transformational change that's needed in this country."

So, he pledges government-financed universal health care to the tune of $90 billion to $120 billion a year. He advocates immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 American troops from Iraq and complete withdrawal within 18 months. He says he made a mistake in voting to authorize the war and continuing to support it through 2004.

His Iraq lines drew applause, of course, but that was not enough for some in this West LA crowd. A number of chapters of Progressive Democrats of America have sprung up around here. When Edwards said that "everything is on the table" if he becomes president, the chairman of one chapter rose to attack "the permanent war economy" and asked him to pledge to bring home all American troops around the world.

"You want me to bring all American military home?" he said. "Are you serious? No. We can't do that."

There were boos. Edwards said: "You want me to tell you what you want to hear, or what I believe?"

Other than that, he came across as he wanted to, as a likable, pragmatic populist, charming and flexible. He will have to be that and more if he is to stand a chance against the front-runners. He had to change his anti-Clinton policy stance when Obama blew in. And he may have to change his political strategy -- running well in the early (and less expensive) caucus and primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina -- if California moves up its traditional June primary to Feb. 5. Then the Democratic race will turn on raising big money, huge money for television.

Can Edwards survive that? I wouldn't bet against him -- not yet. He looks good, and he does not have to face up to the complex dangers of Senate incumbency anymore. He's free at last!

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