The Heartbreak Kid

On Monday, Feb. 23, Gloria Riviera, a 29-year-old ABC News off-air “embed” with Senator John Edwards’ Presidential campaign, flipped open the viewer on her handheld Sony PD-150 digital camera-adorned with a beat-up silver sticker that read “Girls Rock!”-and then played the following video clip:

The campaign’s chartered 737 was about to take off in Ohio; Mr. Edwards was holding court, charming a gaggle of reporters with his easy smile and J.F.K.-as-rewritten-by–John Grisham glow; suddenly, the plane launched forward, jutting straight up; Mr. Edwards braced himself in the doorway; the press corps lurched back, yelping; a bowl of nuts flew off a seat tray; cameramen clutched their 50-pound Beta cams, frozen into bent-knee ski-jump poses to keep themselves from tumbling down the isle.

John Edwards kept talking.

“People were laughing,” recalled Ms. Riviera.

While none of the footage made the air, the plane snafu gave the press a much-needed thrill. It was a rare unscripted moment, testing a candidate whom frustrated reporters chronically describe as having a highly “disciplined” style-with answers so honed and consistent, a stump speech so spit-polished, an image so steadfast in its untarnished charms, that news becomes a relief. On Monday, at a roundtable with union workers, reporters placed bets on how many times Mr. Edwards would say the word “mill,” referencing his blue-collar upbringing.

Just twice.

To date, Mr. Edwards’ consistency was part of a successful strategy that got him the two-man race he had hoped for. But whether that political wisdom remains true is now in question: In Ms. Riviera’s digital playback, Mr. Edwards’ press officer shut the mirrored door that walled off the press from the campaign staff on board the plane, reflecting the Edwards campaign’s sudden understanding that the press could eat it alive.

The Edwards press corps-the same ravenous mob that haloed Mr. Edwards on the front page of The New York Times on Friday, Feb. 20, looking like feeding time at Animal Farm -seemed to signal a sea change in Mr. Edwards’ campaign. Starting with the Iowa caucuses, the Edwards press entourage had bloated from five reporters to around 40. At a rally at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Saturday, Feb. 21, those same reporters were still trying to figure out how to square Mr. Edwards’ shiny, happy potential with the oncoming facts of March 2, Super Tuesday, a 10-state primary that could end his run-or mint him as the Vice Presidential candidate many have pegged him as all along. As of this writing, Mr. Edwards was losing in the polls to Senator John Kerry in New York by 36 points.

“He has tremendous message discipline,” said Jonathan Alter, the Newsweek political columnist and NBC News contributing correspondent, “and even though that’s boring to the press-last week I drove two hours from Milwaukee to Appleton just to hear him give the same speech-it’s boring for us on one level, but we also have a grudging respect for his message discipline.”

Mr. Alter was standing with another Newsweek colleague, Miami bureau chief and Edwards campaign reporter Arian Campo-Flores.

“They’ve had to hear it all the time,” said Mr. Campo-Flores. “And there’s this frustration: ‘God, give us something new, can’t you alter it a little bit?’”

“Maybe he’s made a mistake by not doing that,” mused Mr. Alter. “He would have had a chance at popping a little more if he’d made a little more news. He was maybe too disciplined. I think he’s starting to recognize this now, he’s maybe too disciplined. He needed to throw in some curve balls.”

“His attitude is, it’s not really about feeding the beast,” Mr. Alter said later. “It’s about getting your message out. If your message is familiar to the point of boredom for the people in the bubble, tough, because that’s not who you’re trying to reach.”

Mr. Alter noted that he had met Mr. Edwards on a number of occasions in more intimate settings, including dinner at the Upper East Side home of former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and his wife Kati Marton. In every case, he said, Mr. Edwards seemed to remain a fixed quantity. “What’s very artful about him,” he continued, “is you could seem to be having a conversation with him-as I did for an hour on Saturday-and you seem to be having a very interesting conversation and interview, but then when you listen to the tape, it’s all message.”

For weeks, Mr. Edwards’ stump speech had included a one-liner about how the press constantly badgered him to attack Mr. Kerry-a line that received eye-rolls and knowing smiles from the reporters who had to listen to it day after day.

“How can you possibly be successful without attacking?” Mr. Edwards quoted the press as telling him. “We’re now learning that voters decide elections.”

Early on in the primary season, Governor Howard Dean provided a nice cautionary tale by taking the full ride on the media’s mechanical bull, starting with an enormous buildup and ending with a bucking trajectory back to Vermont. Senator John Kerry has had a media buildup of his own, but with President George W. Bush attacking a certain “senator from Massachusetts” on Monday, may now be headed toward his own teardown phase.

But Mr. Edwards has been a relative debutante: no build-up, no tear down-also, no real juice in the media. And so now it seemed crucial that Mr. Edwards give the press a risky left hook that might send them into a frenzy of Time and Newsweek magazine covers and Diane Sawyer sit-downs with the wife.

On Tuesday, Feb. 24, at long last, with the clock ticking, a number of negative stories began to appear about Mr. Edwards, focusing on fumbles on questions of trade the day before.

Until now, Mr. Edwards has effectively taken the edge off the consistency of his message-”We live in two Americas!”-beating the press with good looks and political sportsmanship. Mr. Alter called Mr. Edwards “a very hot prospect” and a “thoroughbred.” He loved the way he used his hands, hoisting his two fists thumbs-up in the air, blasting his gorgeous teeth, his heartfelt expressions framed by a brilliantly royal-blue suit. One reporter noted that early on his campaign had distributed a picture of Mr. Edwards when he was on his high-school football team. And for many reporters just joining the Edwards caravan, including jumpers from failed campaigns, the charm of the candidate was brand-new, and still affecting.

On Monday, Feb. 23, as Mr. Edwards burst onto a makeshift stage in Manhattan to address union officials, looking like a Saturday-morning cartoon hero, the crowd amped by Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me (Higher and Higher),” you could see the gleam in the eye of Rick Lyman, the Times reporter, who had been on the trail with Mr. Edwards for only four days. It was reminiscent of what someone had quoted former Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska saying, that when he first saw Mr. Edwards speak on the Senate floor he knew how the old New York Yankees veteran players must have felt when they saw the rookie Mickey Mantle come on the field for the first time.

“You can’t help but be emotionally caught up in it,” Mr. Lyman said. “The audiences have actually gotten bigger over the last few days and gotten more energized, so I still find myself caught up in it.”

The previous day, Mr. Lyman had written that Mr. Edwards was “preternaturally engaging.”

“When you’ve seen some of these guys who aren’t as good at it as he is,” he said, “you really appreciate the level of skill he brings to it.”

Mr. Edwards, of course, has done nothing to disabuse anyone of the comparison with John F. Kennedy. In his stump speech at Hofstra, Mr. Edwards actually compared his idealism to Kennedy’s. “John Kennedy came into office at one of the times of greatest racial division in our history,” he said. “He believed that everything was possible-and he gave the American people what they were hoping for.”

“I have to admit that I feel echoes of it, I do,” said Mr. Lyman. “How much is substance? I don’t know. I can’t say …. My sense of it from what I’ve read is that Kennedy was more quick on his feet with ad libs. Edwards is much more scripted. It’s much more similar to a standup-comedy routine where it’s meant to appear like a conversation with the audience, but it’s actually very tightly controlled. I don’t know how much of that was true with J.F.K., but he was much quicker with repartee with audiences and with the press.”

Those who had been following Mr. Edwards’ campaign since last September-like ABC News’ Ms. Riviera-said they were less enamored after months and weeks of the charm offensive.

“Yes, people who see him for the first time are perhaps more excited by everything he says on the stump a little bit more than I am,” said Ms. Riviera, who said her own mother was still asking for an autograph. “I step back and say, O.K., here we go, the J.F.K. comparisons, the idea that this is a candidate who is young, seeing him out there with his small kids, seeing all the photographers go crazy over that, and reporters jump on it initially at first-and I kind of think, ‘Yeah guys, go through your love affair and then step back and take a moment to really evaluate.’”

If history called for a Kennedy-like candidate, Mr. Edwards might fit the bill, she said, but whether Mr. Edwards could go beyond the image remained to be seen.

“I guess the real question is the man behind the myth,” she said. “J.F.K. was idealized by so many people, and how willing and eager are people to find someone to fill that role? Could it be real? Could he fill that role? To a certain extent, his image is easily leant to fulfilling that.”

But the time for an extraordinary press build-up that might help him overtake Mr. Kerry’s campaign is running out. And there were doubts among the press corp that he could break out of his own disciplined mold. John Wagner, a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer , who has been with Mr. Edwards longer than any other reporter on the trail-since 2001, when Mr. Edwards first floated the Presidency idea in Iowa-said Mr. Edwards’ very nature might make him ultimately unknowable and unable to satisfy the press need for a fresh spike in the campaign.

“At a certain point you hit a wall,” he said. “He doesn’t offer too many insights into what’s going on inside of his soul. Unlike some candidates, I think he has a discipline that he developed as a lawyer and he’s just very cautious about how much he allows, and it generally serves him well. But it probably does cause some frustration among the press corps. But it’s not his job to give the press what they want. I don’t know if that hurts him politically, but it may cause some grumbling within the press.”

Joe Trippi, the former campaign manager for Dr. Dean, now an MSNBC political analyst, said the press grumbling and political damage were on a collision course. It would definitely hurt Mr. Edwards if he failed to take major risks in the coming week, he said, and using the media to full advantage was his only recourse.

“They can plan for him to go off script and say something that is news and that would give the press what they want,” he said, “and I think they really want to do that.”

Mr. Trippi suggested that Mr. Edwards make an issue of Mr. Kerry’s disinclination to debate him. “I’d be all over it,” he said. “Really force the two-person race on dialogue and debate as soon as you can-and repeatedly. The real problem with March 2-these are huge places. Nobody is going to have enough money to buy TV and communicate in those places. It’s how you drive the press and drive stories and drive cable coverage. The guy who gets anything going in the media has a much better chance, and Edwards desperately has to do it. And I haven’t seen that kind of aggressiveness.”

But if Mr. Edwards does make news, the press will be there for him, Mr. Trippi said. For a while. “It’s one of those paradoxes,” he said. “You want to figure out ways to create news because they want a race and if you do things that are interesting, just the inertia of the media will help that happening. The downside is once you start winning-get ready.”