CHARLESTON, S.C.—John Edwards may not be leading in the polls. But, he would like to stress, he is leading on the issues.
“I don’t need to read a poll, I don’t need to see a focus group and I don’t need to see what the other candidates are saying,” said Mr. Edwards, sitting next to his wife in a blue van pulling away from Kitty’s Fine Foods in Charleston. “I know exactly what I would do as president and that’s why I have been leading on these issues. And it is exactly the kind of leadership I will provide as president.”
Mr. Edwards and his campaign are rallying around the idea that he has demonstrated leadership by getting out front early on major issues, advocating “big change” and then almost daring his rivals to follow his example.
He rejects the notion that there’s anything political about it.
“You describe it as if it is some kind of strategic maneuver,” said Mr. Edwards, turning around in his seat to face his questioner. “I’m not waiting for anybody else’s position. I know what my own views are and I’m going to lead on it.”
But he certainly wants to make sure everyone knows it.
During a CNN/YouTube debate of Democratic presidential candidates on the night of July 23, Mr. Edwards said, almost apropos of nothing, “I would challenge every Democrat on this stage today to commit to raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by the year 2012.”
The line drew applause.
On Tuesday afternoon, after a campaign stop about global warming in McClellanville, he again raised the issue of raising the minimum wage. He told reporters that the “inside Washington” types on the debate stage had failed to respond to his call for an increase.
“So I’m challenging Senator Clinton and Senator Obama and all the other Democrats” to match him, he said.
He has raced to the fore on other issues as well. His call for Congress to strip the funding for the war in Iraq, which he apologized for voting to authorize in 2002, preceded decisions by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton to abandon their more measured positions on setting a timeline for withdrawal.
Mr. Edwards was the first major candidate this election cycle to deliver a health care plan, which required all Americans to be covered, and to lead a boycott—that the other major candidates eventually joined—against participating in a televised debate on Fox.
He stringently opposed a loophole allowing super-rich hedge fund investors to pay extremely low taxes despite collecting a salary from the New York hedge fund firm Fortress. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, both major beneficiaries of hedge fund money, soon followed suit.
Whenever Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have offered proposals similar to his, Mr. Edwards seems to have reacted by further sharpening his pitch—and by reminding his audiences of who had been their first.
On the afternoon of July 24, for example, he told a meeting of steel workers in a union hall in Georgetown, S.C., that he had no interest in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to improve health care.