ROCHESTER, NH — The question comes midway through John Edwards’s Saturday-afternoon visit to this sleepy granite state town. “Say what you wish,” a grumpy-looking sixtysomething Yankee declares, “but would you please cover the following: one, in what way, if any, have your views on the Iraq invasion changed in the last few years? And two, why did they change?”
GIVE PEACE A CHANCE: He’s got plenty of competition, but John Edwards looks like the best Democratic bet to play anti-Hillary Clinton come 2008.
Edwards hadn’t discussed Iraq in his just-concluded stump speech, but he pointedly invited questions on the subject. Now — shirtsleeves rolled up, deeply tanned, looking less fresh-faced than he did during his 2004 vice-presidential run — the former North Carolina senator responds like a skillful fisherman reeling in his catch. First, he mentions his 2005 Washington Post op-ed renouncing his former support for the Iraq war. “The first sentence was, ‘I was wrong,’ ” Edwards says. “And I do believe I was wrong. I voted for the Iraq-war resolution; it was my responsibility, and I take responsibility for that.”
Then, so quickly and artfully that you almost don’t notice, Edwards shifts from confessional to attack mode. “I think one of the problems that we have with leaders in America today is that they’re unwilling to say when they’re wrong,” he continues. “The result is — you see it with this president every day — the result is, we stay on a course that’s devastating in America, and devastating in some cases for the world.”
This assessment fits the broader critique Edwards offered at every stop on his two-day Granite State junket last weekend: America has too many politicians (focus-grouped, poll-obsessed, expedient) and not enough leaders (principled, candid, sincere). Politically, this apology/attack is a three-fer. It lets Edwards trumpet his own political virtue. It distances him from his 2004 running mate, John Kerry, whose obstinate refusal to recant his own Iraq-war stance hurt his campaign. And it’s a clear dig at New York senator Hillary Clinton, the presumptive 2008 Democratic nominee, whose centrist take on Iraq (no fervent mea culpas, no fixed timetables for troop withdrawal) has pissed off a hefty chunk of the Democratic left. Not bad for a one-minute sound bite.
Get in line
There’s no telling how many anti-Hillarys the Democratic Party will see between now and 2008. Russ Feingold has already been nominated as Hillary’s foil; so have Al Gore and Mark Warner and Evan Bayh. Clearly, this is an imprecise science — but the underlying theory is sound: as the presidential campaign heats up, Democrats who worry that Hillary’s polarizing nature makes her unelectable will look for a more palatable alternative.
Now it’s Edwards’s turn. “It’s official: John Edwards is the new anti-Hillary,” the New Republic (TNR) recently announced. Why Edwards? TNR stressed the pending Democratic plan to rejigger the 2008 primaries, with Nevada holding caucuses shortly after Iowa and a South Carolina primary following close on the heels of New Hampshire’s. After all, Edwards is popular in Iowa; he finished second in that state’s 2004 caucuses, and topped a June Des Moines Register presidential poll. (A July University of New Hampshire poll put Edwards second among Democrats, with 22 percent to Clinton’s 30 percent.) In Nevada, Edwards should be able to capitalize on his good relationship with several influential service-sector unions. And since Edwards was born in South Carolina — and represented the other Carolina in the Senate — he could hold his own there against Clinton, who’s expected to garner significant support from the state’s African-American voters. This schedule could decide the nomination by the end of January; according to TNR, it would also be “tailor-made to Edwards’s strengths.”