MONT VERNON, NEW HAMPSHIRE — John Edwards is the new comeback kid. The North Carolina senator has assumed the title previously held by former president Bill Clinton, who awarded it to himself on the night of the 1992 New Hampshire primary. That was after his presidential campaign had bounced back from scandals over the candidate’s dodging the Vietnam draft and his relationship with blond chanteuse Gennifer Flowers, allowing Clinton to finish second to Paul Tsongas in the Granite State.
Edwards hasn’t had to overcome anything as sordid as Gennifer Flowers. His hurdle came in the form of NBC’s Meet the Press host Tim Russert. Edwards’s plan to position himself as 2004’s Bill Clinton had been playing out beautifully — positive profiles in New York magazine, the New Yorker, and Vanity Fair — until an encounter with Russert demonstrated the would-be candidate’s inability to move beyond buzzwords.
During a May 5, 2002, appearance on Meet the Press, Edwards criticized Bush’s War on Terrorism, but didn’t say whether he would commit more American troops to fight in Afghanistan. Edwards also took issue with Bush’s Middle East policy, but was unable to articulate an alternative. Washington Post media writer Howard Kurtz summed up the interview in a May 10 column headlined JOHN EDWARDS FALLS TO EARTH, in which he quoted Beltway pundits such as Roll Call’s Stuart Rothenberg and the Chicago Sun-Times’ Robert Novak belittling Edwards’s ability to dish out substance. And, in the wake of that Meet the Press performance, the New Republic predicted, "The law of political gravity says that what goes up must come down, which means that North Carolina Senator John Edwards had best prepare for some decidedly terrestrial publicity."
Presidential politics moved at a slower pace in 1992. Then, a candidate’s rise and fall (or, in Clinton’s case, fall and rise) spanned the entire campaign season. Now, just a decade later, a candidate can fall from grace and recoup within a few months — and there’s more than a year to go until the election. All that opinion-leader blowback seemed a long way away last month when I caught up with Edwards in New Hampshire less than two months after his mini-meltdown on Meet the Press. He was back to echoing early Clinton — working from the same script that had won him glowing press notices. "I think people are looking for leaders who have principles ... things they’ve fought for all of their lives and they’re willing to stand up and fight for them," said Edwards, standing underneath a tree moments before a torrent of rain broke over him. And later: "We saw back in the 1990s, when President Clinton was in office, [that] what works is being fiscally responsible and having balanced budgets creating surpluses instead of creating deficits."
Of course, there are plenty of differences between Clinton and Edwards — the first being their nemeses: Flowers is a pouty woman from Arkansas, while Russert is a stocky man from Buffalo. Clinton was a Southern rogue in the manner of Elvis Presley; Edwards, whose father worked in a cotton mill and who was the first member of his family to go to college, evokes John-Boy from The Waltons. And from the look of things, New Hampshire likes John-Boy.
Edwards made a string of Granite State appearances in late June — among the highlights, a meet-and-greet at a Democratic pig-roast, in Bow. I observed Edwards address a small house party in Mont Vernon at the kind of event New Hampshire is famous for — an intimate (fewer than 50 people) gathering where party stalwarts get to quiz would-be candidates. When I asked Edwards how he had recovered from the wave of criticism that he’s not ready for prime time, he pushed through the question without hesitation. "I just behave the way I am, and I don’t change," he answered, in his languid Carolinian drawl. "People in Washington are going to love you one day and not love you the next. You can’t pay any attention to that. You just have to do what you believe is right and continue on the same course."
Edwards voices no ill will toward Russert, calling him "a very good journalist [who] asks very good questions" — a pragmatic move for an ambitious politician. Still, Edwards is more eager to focus on voters than on Washington opinion leaders. "I think what I need to do is do what I’m doing today and do what I’ve always done, which is to talk to and listen to regular people — what their concerns are — and to have a real idea and vision about how to address their problems," he says.
Edwards’s confidence has its basis in certain facts evident to anybody watching his field of potential rivals. At 19 months before the 2004 New Hampshire primary, he’s still the only credible new face in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Former vice-president Al Gore, a man who has been involved in the past four presidential races, is also likely to run, this time as his own man, with minimal reliance on consultants — a boast made all the more easily since his former strategist, Bob Shrum, is leaning toward working for Edwards. House minority leader Richard Gephardt is a veteran of the 1988 presidential campaign and long-time Gore rival (see "Clash of the Titans," News and Features, June 14). Even Massachusetts senator John Kerry, a formidable candidate and decorated Vietnam veteran who's gained notice for criticizing Bush’s military leadership, has been on the national political scene for four decades.
Edwards is lucky that even for many core New Hampshire Democrats, he is a fresh face, a candidate who can appeal to activists worn out by campaign fatigue. He says as much when asked by a voter about the competition. "I think I represent something different," Edwards notes. "I have an outside-Washington perspective. And I have a view of the world that I think is similar to regular Americans’. I don’t see things through the eyes of Washington."
Where the likes of Russert, Rothenberg, Novak, et al. want specific answers to tough follow-up questions, voters — even those who show up to quiz would-be presidential candidates — are more often than not just as happy with a string of glib generalities, which is pretty much what Edwards gives them. No smooth Clintonesque blend of policy expertise with the personal for Edwards. Still, it might be enough. The voters seem taken with the newcomer — despite his sometimes less-than-stellar oratory.