COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – When he first ran for president, former Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina, was the fresh face in the Democratic Party, a perpetually buoyant campaigner who built his candidacy around his own biography and whose success in the primaries earned him a place on the 2004 Democratic ticket.
Fast-forward to today, and there is a new John Edwards on the campaign trail. His demeanor is more serious and his elbows far sharper than four years ago. Two years after leaving the Senate, he rarely mentions his time in Washington. Nor does he talk about his experience as Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s vice presidential running mate.
His political positions also have more edge. Emphasis on biography has given way to focus on issues, where there has been a demonstrable shift to the left – on the Iraq war, health care and the federal budget deficit. The changes have given him entree to the liberal voters and constituencies who are influential in selecting Democratic presidential nominees.
Although he labors in their shadows, Edwards has drawn attention from the party’s two glamour candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, of New York, and Sen. Barack Obama, of Illinois, this year’s fresh face. Both rivals recognize the potential threat he carries to their candidacies, particularly in Iowa, Nevada, South Carolina and New Hampshire, where the nomination battle begins.
Edwards’ moves have raised eyebrows inside the party among those who wonder whether the differences indicate a genuine evolution or pure political calculation.
“Some of what is being characterized in that way is the result of me being strong and clear about where I stand and not being soft and muddy,” Edwards said during an interview Friday after a day of campaigning in western Iowa. “I think that we’re in a place in American history where any serious presidential candidate and the president of the United States need to be clear what they want to do for the country.”
He defended himself as someone whose compass has remained fixed. “I should make absolutely clear, nothing has changed about John Edwards as a human being and my value system,” he said. “It’s exactly the same as it’s always been, which is wanting to give people the chances that I’ve had.”
Anita Dunn, a Democratic strategist, said Edwards is running “a very different kind of campaign this time, with a very different moral compass.” The differences, she added, are likely to draw scrutiny from his rivals in the primaries.
Steve Elmendorf, who managed Richard Gephardt’s 2004 campaign, said the changes could give rise to questions of authenticity. “His challenge is to show that, if he is different, experience caused him to change where he is,” Elmendorf said.
Edwards advisers say some of the changes reflect significant shifts in public attitudes since 2004, particularly about the war. They also say his having run before makes him a different candidate.
“He knows what he wants and believes in with a passion,” said David Bonior, a former Michigan representative who is Edwards’ campaign manager. “I think he’s very confident about his values and beliefs and he’s expressing that.”
“This is not about small, baby steps,” Edwards told an overflow audience in Council Bluffs on Friday. “It’s not about political calculation and incremental change. We’re going to bring about the real changes, the transformational change that’s needed in this country.”
That ambition has pushed Edwards to the left, most significantly on Iraq. Edwards voted for the 2002 congressional resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war and defended that vote throughout the 2004 campaign. But he later renounced the vote and has repeatedly described it as a mistake. He favors the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops, would like to see all of them out over the next 12 to 18 months and says Congress should use its power over the national purse to force the drawdown.
On health care, he has proposed a plan for universal coverage that he says will cost $90 billion to $120 billion a year. He would pay for it by rolling back Bush’s tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans. When he describes the details, he says matter-of-factly that it could lead to a government-run, single-payer health care system, a position no other major candidate has come close to articulating.
At a time when some Democrats such as Clinton call for a return to fiscal discipline in light of current budget deficits, Edwards takes the opposite view. What threatens the country is too little investment in health care, alternative energy sources, education and job security, he says, and he would rather do something on those than try to reduce the deficit significantly.
“I think he has a strategy to meet the party where it is,” said veteran strategist Robert Shrum, who was an adviser when Edwards first ran for the Senate in 1998. “It’s a party that wants fundamental change, not just in Iraq but on issues like health care. He’s going to meet the voters where they are. I think he believes, and I think he’s correct, that the old strategy of triangulation won’t work in Democratic primaries – and certainly won’t work for him.”
Edwards has prodded Democrats in Congress to get tougher on the war, and his most pointed rhetoric seems to have been aimed at Clinton. At a Democratic forum last month in Carson City, Nev., he said that, after six years of Bush, the country is ready for a president who is honest, open and willing to admit mistakes – and then offered another mea culpa for his 2002 vote.
The implication seemed clear – he was admitting his mistake while Clinton has not – but Edwards continues to deflect questions on whom he is talking about. “I wasn’t pointing at anybody specifically,” he said Friday. He added that he has not singled out Clinton because “that sounds like I’ve made a judgment that she can’t meet that test (of honesty and willingness to admit mistakes). That’s not what I’m saying.”
Asked whether she has taken responsibility for her vote, he said that depends on whether she believes the vote was wrong, in which case she should say so. “I don’t know whether she believes it. I can’t read her mind,” he said. But if she still believes the vote was right at the time, he added, “Then she should defend it.”
In comparison to the 2004 campaign, Edwards has relentlessly courted organized labor and hopes to win some union endorsements. He campaigned last year for state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage, appeared on picket lines with workers, and his health care plan has won praise in the labor community. Campaign manager Bonior has close ties to labor.
Edwards also has wooed the “net-roots” activists on the left. He refused to fire two liberal bloggers on his campaign who had come under fire for inflammatory remarks published on their personal blogs. Both later resigned.
Aides to rival candidates and unaffiliated party strategists describe Edwards as an undervalued stock in the Democratic race, despite the attention given to Clinton and Obama.
They believe he is well positioned to win some of the early states, starting with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses. Edwards has led most of the polls of Iowa Democrats, and the organization he built last time is still highly regarded. His visit this weekend was the 19th since the 2004 election.
Edwards also believes that, because many big states are moving their primaries to early February, the first four contests will be more important than ever. “Someone will come out of the early contests with momentum,” he said.
To get that far, Edwards will have to prove he can compete with Clinton and Obama in fundraising, with the first indicator – his first-quarter totals – due at the end of this month. No one, his advisers believe, can raise more than Clinton, but party strategists say Edwards must not be a distant third behind both Clinton and Obama.
When asked about those two candidates, Edwards offers a stock response: “I’m just honestly keeping my head down and doing my work.” But at the end of a long day, he also added, “I’ve never worked harder in my life.”