Watching the reception John Edwards has received in New York, it’s easy to forget that he is actually trailing in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination.
Coverage of his initial visits to the city was intense, best characterized by news photographs showing him besieged by an army of cameras and reporters at one of his first events after the Wisconsin primary. His campaign rallies have been energy-filled, upbeat affairs: At a weekend event at Hofstra University on Long Island, Mr. Edwards literally had to be held back from bounding out onto the stage before a local legislator had finished making his introduction.
When front-runner John Kerry campaigned here, by contrast, his events were relaxed-he arrived late, kept his remarks relatively brief and ignored Mr. Edwards. The Yale-educated, patrician Mr. Kerry, after all, would seem to be in his element in New York after shaking loose the rural dust of Wisconsin, New Hampshire and Iowa. He represents a state which borders New York and has a sizable urban constituency. He is familiar with an array of issues-public transportation and inner-city schools, to name just two-that resonate with New Yorkers. New York even elected a Mayor who was born in Mr. Kerry’s home state.
Yet it has been John Edwards, the trial lawyer and Senator from North Carolina, who has generated the most attention leading up to New York’s March 2 primary. That’s owing partly to the time he has spent here in the last week, stumping in the city and upstate. Much of that attention might also be attributed to his presentation rather than his record or his positions: Onstage, Mr. Edwards is a bundle of impossibly positive energy and courtroom-polished eloquence, all smiles and thumbs-up signs, talking about “hope” and “lifting people up.”
But the hype that has accompanied Mr. Edwards to New York isn’t necessarily a reflection of political reality. There is much talk that Mr. Edwards could turn the Democratic race upside down, again, with a victory in New York. Thanks to his strong second-place showing in Wisconsin, Mr. Edwards has been deemed to be the candidate with “momentum.” But the fact remains that Mr. Edwards has yet to win outright anywhere except South Carolina, his original home state. In contest after contest, Mr. Edwards has charmed eventgoers, editorial boards and television pundits, only to be steamrolled on election day when ordinary Democratic voters went to the polls and pulled the lever for his less lovable but better-known opponent, Mr. Kerry.
Adding to Mr. Edwards’ challenge in New York, the primary here is open to Democrats only, leaving out the independents and Republicans who provided much of the Senator’s support elsewhere. And then there are those other advantages that naturally accrue to the front-runner: Mr. Kerry will outspend Mr. Edwards by several times on ads; he has more institutional support and a bigger organization.
There’s no denying the effect of Mr. Edwards’ Democratic evangelism. “People just find him amazingly inspiring,” said Laura Ross, an important Manhattan-based fund-raiser and early Edwards supporter. “I’ve seen him speak where his audience has just been spellbound.”
But Mr. Edwards is drawing attention for reasons that go beyond the courtroom-polished oratory and personal magnetism. The race has now boiled down to the one-on-one match, with Mr. Edwards in the role of scrappy underdog. It seems to be an irresistible storyline, and his supporters hope he makes the most of it.
“I think he’s definitely getting more attention now,” said Ms. Ross. “That’s why he wanted a two-man race. I think anybody who wasn’t as well-known would have relished a two-man race, but John happens to be fabulous on the camera, and he can make more of it than somebody else who isn’t.”
It was widely supposed that the nomination would be wrapped up by the time New York Democrats had their say. But it hasn’t worked out that way. And interest in the campaign here only heightened when Edwards supporters identified New York as one of his best chances for victory on Super Tuesday, March 2. Mr. Edwards hopes to dominate the Democratic vote in economically depressed upstate New York, where he is running against Mr. Kerry’s support of free trade. (Mr. Kerry says that their positions on trade are the same.)
A win here, coupled with victories in several other states on March 2, would allow Mr. Edwards to continue his fight. Despite a new SurveyUSA poll showing him trailing in New York by 36 points, some political experts give him a real chance of pulling off a surprise.
“He’s been attracting … rural and small-town voters with his message of two Americas,” said pollster John Zogby. “He’s also attractive to a lot of people simply because of the fact that he’s ‘the other candidate.'” Mr. Zogby said he wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Edwards won New York.
In the meantime, Mr. Kerry has continued to play the role of confident front-runner. At an event at York College in Queens, Mr. Kerry presented a string of public officials who were endorsing him and took questions from the audience. The event itself was on the sleepy side, attended by several hundred people, but with empty seats and a reception from the audience that seemed more polite than ebullient.
As usual, Mr. Kerry was able to display his proficiency on the issues-mostly dealing with labor and employment-and he took the opportunity to direct his attacks at the Bush administration, not at his colleague and rival for the nomination.
Judging by White House attacks on Mr. Kerry this week, President Bush’s campaign staff seems certain that the Democrats will nominate the man from Massachusetts. But if the Bush and Kerry campaigns have already written him off, Mr. Edwards hardly seems to be in a hurry to change the dynamic of the race. At Hofstra on Feb. 21, he told his audience that the media was urging him to attack Mr. Kerry, but that he refused to do so. Instead, he is hoping that if he reels off some more stirring performances on the stump, gets some positive coverage and maybe scores a couple of points in an upcoming debate on Feb. 29, it might be enough to put him over the top, here and elsewhere.
So he has stuck to his stump speech, built around the populist theme of “two Americas,” one for the privileged and one for “the rest of us.” He firmly established himself as one of “the rest”-despite his personal wealth-by emphasizing his background as the son of a mill worker. He built up to the emotional climax of his speech by talking about how he fared when he first went up against a team of more polished corporate lawyers in a courtroom. “I beat ‘em,” he said, “and I beat ‘em again, and I beat ‘em again, and I beat ‘em again.”
He went on to explain how he did much the same thing to the “Jesse Helms political machine” in North Carolina when he won his Senate race in 1998. “The result? Now I’m the senior Senator from North Carolina, not Jesse Helms!”
It’s been performances like these that have earned him raves, or at least style points. James Chace, a professor at Bard College and Presidential historian, said that Mr. Edwards is in some ways reminiscent of John Kennedy, and said that the contrast with Mr. Kerry’s more “wooden” style certainly works in his favor.
But Mr. Chace also said that he could see Mr. Edwards winning a beauty contest among Democrats, but still losing the vote to the more experienced Mr. Kerry. “His message is a good one and optimistic one that works for people, but I don’t know if that will be enough to break through the feeling that Kerry is a more valuable candidate because he just knows so much about the issues,” Mr. Chace said.
Kerry supporters echoed that theme of style losing out to substance. “Edwards has a wonderful story and extraordinary charisma,” said City Councilman Eric Gioia, who now supports Mr. Kerry. “In some of those areas, he probably beats Kerry. But I don’t think the old line about Republicans wanting to win and Democrats just wanting to fall in love is true this year. They just really want to win in November.”
After the speech at Hofstra, Mr. Edwards told reporters he was confident that he would be able to convince New Yorkers that he was ready, and that he would pull off a comeback in New York. He pointed to his late surge on Feb. 17 in Wisconsin. “I think the same thing will happen here,” he said. Mr. Edwards lost in Wisconsin by six points, but was universally lauded by television pundits as a big winner because of his weak poll numbers just a week before that primary.
In the coming days, the Edwards camp will do its best to keep its man front and center. In addition to the debate on Feb. 29, which could be pivotal for his chances, his wife Elizabeth will be campaigning around the city. The campaign says that the attention they have managed to generate is going to be key to winning here. “Being able to put him in front of the voters for five consecutive days earlier this week was huge for us,” said Alex Navarro, the campaign’s New York spokesman.
Whatever happens, it’s a certainty that no one will be getting any more credit this time for “strong” second-place finishes. “The Edwards campaign might not say it, but as I see it, if he doesn’t win a big state on March 2, it’s nearly impossible for him to continue,” said Eric Schmeltzer, the former New York spokesman for Howard Dean who has since started a group called Deaniacs for Edwards. “Strong showings got him to this point, but I’d say that the window of opportunity is closing really fast.”