“The time to negotiate with them is after we beat them,” he said, contrasting himself with candidates favoring a more moderate approach. He then proceeded to list all the other issues he says he came out first on.
“You’re showing leadership, that’s the issue,” said Mr. Edwards’ deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince after the debate on Monday. “Does anybody really think that these guys would have been in favor of defunding the war if we didn’t?”
Joe Trippi, Edwards’ top strategic advisor—and the former campaign manager to a certain trend-setting, if ultimately unsuccessful, candidate named Howard Dean—added, “I don’t think there is any doubt that John Edwards has been setting the agenda.”
But whatever moral victories Mr. Edwards has won so far over his main Democratic rivals have yet to translate into concrete political gain. Despite adoration from liberal bloggers, he trails in public polls of Democrats nearly everywhere except Iowa, where he has spent far more time than his opponents, and his fund-raising totals have been dwarfed by Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Obama’s.
And where the Edwards campaign presents his outspokenness as an act of bravery, his rivals see a candidate fading in the polls and desperately seeking attention by telling voters what they want to hear before they forget about him.
“I really wouldn’t interpret it that if somebody in a campaign gave a speech, it decides the issues,” said Mark Penn, Mrs. Clinton’s chief pollster and political strategist. Mrs. Clinton, he said, “has been an actual leader for many years. If she’s president she’s going to drive the agenda in many ways.”
Former Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a major Clinton supporter, said he “vehemently” disagreed with the notion that Mrs. Clinton was at all following Mr. Edwards on any issues, especially the war in Iraq.
“In the area of Iraq, her plan is far more comprehensive,” said Mr. Vilsack. “I don’t know that he has come out with a comprehensive discussion of Iraq other than he wants to get the troops out.”
Mr. Obama’s campaign, too, took sharp issue with the notion that their candidate had taken any positions in reaction to Mr. Edwards.
“Obama spoke out against the war in 2003, and he has been a consistent opponent since then, so there has been no reason to apologize for his vote,” said Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for Mr. Obama.