New York has a race on its hands! Senator John Edwards’ surprisingly strong finish in Wisconsin will plunge the Southern wonder boy into a river of New York money and media attention, as the state-permanently disgruntled with its inglorious place in the crush of Super Tuesday-sees an opportunity to make a star in the 2004 Democratic primary.
With about three-quarters of the votes in, Mr. Edwards was running 4 points behind Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, even as supporters of former Vermont Governor Howard Dean-who racked up the endorsements while his campaign surged-looked on in dismay as their man failed to reach 20 percent of the vote in liberal, quirky Wisconsin.
The North Carolina Senator’s New York fund-raisers watched the Wisconsin results with glee.
“It’s an indication that John Edwards really does appeal to people across the political spectrum, and that he’s clearly the most electable candidate,” said May Lee, who, with her husband John Hall, has been among Mr. Edwards’ key local supporters.
“We’ve continued to see money flowing in from people who aren’t sure about Kerry’s electability.”
Campaign sources said that Mr. Edwards expects to raise $250,000 at two New Jersey fund-raisers Feb. 18, and to fill his piggy bank with a major New York City fund-raiser Dec. 29.
Mr. Edwards is set to seize the local stage first with a speech at Columbia University on Feb. 19. But his campaign will be fighting for turf when Mr. Kerry’s campaign arrives in force the following week, to bask in the endorsements of several key former supporters of General Wesley Clark, in the Massachusetts Democrat’s drive to lock up the nomination here on March 2.
But momentum coming into New York can be a perilous thing. With 236 delegates up for grabs, New York-with California-gives “Super Tuesday” its name. The city has always offered traps for unsuspecting candidates: The city’s intense provincialism and position as media fishbowl, seemingly irrelevant when the race is decided, will be factors now that Senator Edwards has made his campaign a live wire. In 1988, Al Gore’s Presidential campaign stumbled when his key backer, Mayor Ed Koch, attacked Jesse Jackson. In 1992, it was a New York reporter who prompted Bill Clinton’s notorious assertion that he smoked marijuana but “didn’t inhale.” Local Democrats fear that the Reverend Al Sharpton, who had just 1 percent of the Wisconsin vote in the latest in a string of weak performances, could stage a last stand in New York with damaging attacks on one of the other candidates.
“New York is a different kind of place,” said one of Mr. Edwards’ local supporters, Assemblyman Jeff Klein of the Bronx. “It’s the kind of place where, if there’s a transit strike, the candidate has to be able to quickly respond.”
Mr. Edwards’ new strength will likely trigger a new, more intense focus on his campaign from the media and his rivals, but his local supporters sounded confident last night.
“Senator Edwards is going to shine where it’s clearly a two-candidate race,” said one of Mr. Edwards’ backers, Assemblyman Jeff Klein of the Bronx. “The voters of New York are going to see someone who clearly has a message that resonates with the middle class.”
Mr. Edwards’ campaign hasn’t yet made plans for television advertising in New York-something that depends heavily on how much money the North Carolina Senator can raise.
But some local strategists are already laying down Mr. Edwards’ organization on the ground-which might have seemed premature before Mr. Edward’s prodigious Wisconsin performance-and say that his still-ample coffers will take care of the advertising just fine.
Local Edwards strategists are already pointing to a quirk of the early electoral process: Mr. Edwards, unlike Mr. Kerry, filed full slates of delegates, opening the possibility that Mr. Edwards will emerge from the state with more delegates even if he loses a close race.
“We have the potential to walk away with more delegates in New York than anybody else,” his state director, Terence Tolbert, said.
Mr. Kerry’s campaign, too, is bracing for the spotlight that comes with campaigning in New York and California.
“Anything that anybody does in New York can only just be a warm-up for the negative type of campaigning that the Republicans have already started,” said Representative Greg Meeks of Queens, one of Mr. Kerry’s earliest local backers. “It’ll be batting practice if anything does happen.”
Mr. Meeks said the week of Monday, Feb. 23, will include a show of support by Mr. Kerry’s swelling ranks of supporters, including several officials who backed Wesley Clark until he dropped out of the race: the dean of the Congressional delegation, Charles Rangel of Harlem; Representative Anthony Weiner; and State Senate minority leader David Paterson.
While Mr. Kerry’s New York schedule isn’t set yet, his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, will spend much of that week in frosty upstate New York, where she will court female voters and tour sites from the women’s suffrage movement, the campaign’s local communications director, Mark Kornblau, said. She’s expected in the city on March 1 for a pair of fund-raisers, including a “Women for Kerry” event at the Gramercy Park Hotel.
For Mr. Edwards, New York offers a final chance to prove his ability as a national candidate, a Democratic consultant, Evan Stavisky, said.
“Coming to New York, Edwards will have to compete in prime time,” he said.
-Additional reporting by Lizzy Ratner