Can John Edwards Sell His Populism at Regency Hotel?

John Edwards put down his fork and pointed at Hillary Clinton.

He had been asked to explain his low profile just two years after being the Democratic nominee for Vice President.

“There are other candidates—Senator Clinton, Senator Obama—who are interesting for people,” said Mr. Edwards, waving his right hand towards a sunlit table across the dining room of the Regency Hotel, where Mrs. Clinton was holding court. “And it’s not surprising to me that they would get a lot of attention.”

While the party is dazzled by the trajectory of its two brilliant stars, Mr. Edwards—last seen on the national stage in 2004 as the vigorous and youthful running mate to the long-faced, awkward John Kerry—has virtually disappeared.

The former Senator for North Carolina is nevertheless expected to announce his Presidential candidacy in New Orleans’ ravaged Lower Ninth Ward sometime after Christmas. The setting is a meaningful one. Mr. Edwards is positioning himself as the Southern populist who can rally the party’s liberal base for his crusade against poverty, his advocacy for stronger unions, and his public expression of remorse for voting to authorize the Iraq war.

Over the last two years, he has chipped away at a perceived weakness in foreign policy by bouncing around the world like a piece of lost luggage. And his frequent visits to his fund-raising network of lawyers and businessmen in New York have complemented regular pilgrimages to the primary states.

“Sometimes I do feel like someone needs to shake the national press and remind them we do not have a national primary—never have,” said Mr. Edwards.

He added, “The only thing that matters is: How are you doing in Iowa and New Hampshire?”

That’s the Edwards scenario in a nutshell: win in Iowa, and national attention will follow.

If the early polls are even remotely accurate, it’s not an implausible calculation.

A recently released survey of Iowa Democrats conducted in October by Harstad Strategic Research for a group called Environmental Defense showed Mr. Edwards way out in front with the support of 36 percent of likely caucus-goers. Mrs. Clinton had 16 percent, and Barack Obama had 13.

“He has not been out of the eye of the caucus corps,” said David Yepsen, the Des Moines Register columnist and guru of Iowa politics. “Edwards is doing well here, there is no question about that.”

On Friday morning, Mr. Edwards, dressed in a blue shirt but no tie, sauntered into the library café at the Regency Hotel. At 53, he still cuts a lean and handsome figure, and his almost eerily ageless face makes one wonder if he doesn’t have some deteriorating portrait stashed up in his hotel room. He was in New York for a short but busy stay.

A day earlier, he had pitched a roomful of lawyers and potential supporters organized by Alex Forger of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy in the Essex House on Central Park South. On Friday, he had scheduled private meetings with old financial supporters and prospective new ones.

But first, over a 30-minute breakfast of eggs, sausage and iced tea at the Regency, he laid out his pitch to America in a leisurely North Carolina drawl.

“The President has got to re-establish our leadership, because without our leadership the world exists in chaos,” said Mr. Edwards, echoing the theme he has laid out in countless private auditions before prominent party activists.

Just as he was getting warmed up, a dose of grim reality came along in the form of a warm hello from the restaurant’s manager, Rae Bianco.

“I have a lot of commotion over there,” said Ms. Bianco, accepting Mr. Edwards’ kiss on the cheek before adding, “It’s Hillary.” She darted her eyes across the room, where Mrs. Clinton was engaging in a power breakfast with New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Mrs. Clinton wore red lipstick and a billowing black blouse. She alternately laughed and listened gravely. She ate fruit.

“Ah,” said Mr. Edwards.

“Can I stay over here?” Ms. Bianco joked, provoking a laugh from Mr. Edwards.

“You can stay wherever you want—it’s your place,” he said.

A few moments later, Mr. Edwards argued, with a straight face, that despite Mrs. Clinton’s seemingly constant proximity, she was the farthest thing from his or any other of the potential candidates’ minds.

“I actually believe that the next nominee for President on our side, and probably on the other side, will probably not get that nomination because they are well known or because they are a celebrity,” he said. “And remember that I am well known.

“They’ll get the nomination,” he added, “because the voters have decided they have the depth and the experience and the maturity to be President, and they can win.”

That, of course, is a subtle dig at both Mr. Obama, whose scant two-year tenure in the Senate has been cited by pundits as a potential Achilles’ heel, and Mrs. Clinton, who, conventional wisdom has it, may be too polarizing to get elected.

Mr. Edwards, on the other hand, has already demonstrated his appeal in primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, where he made surprisingly strong showings in 2004. But unlike last time around, when he was up against petulant Howard Dean and portentous John Kerry, Mr. Edwards won’t have a monopoly on folksy charm. As the avalanche of media hype surrounding the possible entry of Mr. Obama into the race indicates, that niche may already be taken.

Instead, he is trying to position himself, in contrast with a former First Lady and a brainy urban-activist Harvard Law graduate, as the populist in the field.

“On domestic policy, we need to be bolder,” Mr. Edwards said. “Bolder ideas about fighting poverty, and things like the complete restructuring of the way we do public housing in America, bolder ideas about health care. I believe we need universal health care—I’m actually working on a plan right now.”

He said that Democrats had largely abandoned the party’s core mission of being a voice to the poor and had “lost their political nerve” ever since Ronald Reagan typecast them as a bunch of bleeding hearts. He wants stronger unions, too—a position that will only help him in the newly important primary state of Nevada, where many of the casino and hotel workers want to organize.

And Mr. Edwards’ public admission in November of last year in The Washington Post that he had made a mistake in voting for the war in Iraq (“I was wrong,” it began) endeared him to the active and growing anti-war wing of the party.

“We have to make it clear that we do intend to leave, that we do intend to start that process,” Mr. Edwards said about American troops in Iraq. “I would withdraw 40-, 50,000 troops immediately. And then we need our military leaders to advise the President about the most effective and efficient way to withdraw combat troops over a period of time.”

At the same time, Mr. Edwards—who has battled a perception since 2004 that he is light on knowledge and authority in international affairs—wanted to make it very clear that he advocates a varied and muscular foreign policy for Democrats. He has conferred with foreign-policy experts such as former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and has traveled in the last two years to Asia, Europe and Africa to talk to various leaders about how to improve America’s position in the world. His global perspective, he said, “is something that has largely developed over the last few years. I think if you went back to 2003, 2004, you probably wouldn’t hear me saying those things.”

(He spent parts of September and October in Uganda, where he met with President Yoweri Museveni and with refugees from the war-torn northern part of the country.)

But viable Presidential candidates require more than just a heavily stamped passport. They need money.

Last month, Mr. Edwards met with about 25 past and potential supporters, including Laura Ross, one of his major New York donors, for a breakfast in the basement of the downtown restaurant City Hall.

“There was discussion that money is going to be hugely central to a run,” said Tom Moore, a trial lawyer with Kramer, Dillof, Livingston & Moore and a staunch Edwards supporter. “In the first quarter, he is going to need to have gotten big bucks. He said, ‘We’re going to need a lot of money. You’ve got to do your bit and get others to do it.’ And I’m going to do it, and I’m going to get the money.”

“He was good then. I think he is better now,” said Richard Thaler, vice chairman of Deutsche Bank Securities and a major donor to Mr. Edwards. “I think Obama and Hillary are going to kill each other.”

Mr. Edwards feels that he’ll be able to take advantage of his existing network of contributors to find the resources he’ll need to mount a serious bid. “This is an area I don’t have to guess about,” he said. “I have both a track record and a wide and deep support network nationwide, including New York, that I’m still very close to. If I decide to run, I know I will be able to raise the money to run a serious campaign.”

But he is starting this time around at a pronounced disadvantage. According to the Federal Election Commission Web site, Mr. Edwards’ One America Committee P.A.C. had $20,611 on hand as of the end of November. As of September, Mr. Edwards’ 2004 Presidential campaign was still more than $300,000 in debt.

And with high-profile rivals like Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama to contend with, the former Senator is likely to find that resources are considerably more difficult to come by this time around, even in the country’s most donor-rich precincts.

“He wasn’t running against a New York Senator last time. It creates a precarious situation for any fund-raiser to go against their own Senator, especially when she is the front-runner,” said one New York fund-raiser sympathetic to Mr. Edwards. “Giving to Hillary is a win-win: She is either going to be the nominee, or she is going to be the New York Senator for as long as she wants to be.”

“New York does seem to be Hillary country,” said Fern Hurst, an Edwards supporter and prominent Democratic donor who recently hosted a cocktail party for Mr. Edward’s wife, Elizabeth. But, she added optimistically, “John will present who he is, and I think when he does that, he wins friends and supporters.” Can John Edwards Sell His Populism at Regency Hotel?