NEW YORK – After spending much of the year losing the battle for press time – and poll position – to Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Senator John Edwards is finally starting shine. With Time's poll numbers showing an 8-point lead over Clinton, his campaign is hoping that decisive victory in Iowa will propel Edwards into the heat of the spotlight and an acceptance speech in Denver.
The key to Edwards' potentially successful re-brand? His War on Poverty Redux? The "People Versus the Powerful" rhetorical mantra? His terrific recasting of the Fair Trade trope as "Smart Trade"? All of the above? We think not. We think Edward's re-brand is far less about substance than it is about a well-articulated repositioning and the further development of a powerful, unrelenting political voice.
The gloves are off and Edward's appears to be taking a page out of the Bulworth pagebook – and finally "telling it like it is." Clearly, this is resonating with Iowa's Democratic voters, who are craving the fiery "throw the bums out" rhetoric that Edward's and his wife Elizabeth are no longer loathe to express. And, in finally letting go of the prepackaged "presidential" posturing and returning to the innate passion that characterizes a man – and a family – whose background, obstacles, tragedies, and personal triumphs draw true empathy from a Democratic electorate comprised of working people – not the New York/Washington/Hollywood élites who tend to dominate the national Democratic discourse.
Indeed, the Time poll reveals that Edwards leads Sen. Clinton in the "likability" category by a mere margin of 32 to 12 – and the "best understands the concerns of people like yourself" section 30-23. At the same time, Edwards, who always held strong margins of victory in hypothetical match-ups with Republicans, is starting to solidify those leads with Rasmussen showing Edwards beating Guiliani 49 to 41 and Romney 45 to 38, dominating Sen. Thompson 49 to 35, and crushing McCain 52 to 36.
While Sen. Obama maintains similar leads, Rasmussen shows Sen. Clinton losing to Guiliani 44 to 47, barely edging McCain 48 to 46 and Thompson 48 to 44. Sen. Clinton's only margin of victory, outside of the margin of error, is her commanding lead over Gov. Mitt Romney 51 to 40. When combined with Sen. Clinton's 49 percent "unfavorable" ratings might be wonder if Hillary is the best person to not only ensure Democratic occupation of White House, but also maintain or expand Democratic control of Congress. Could Edward's be this person? The jury is still out, but at least Edwards is finally beginning to capture the attention and imagination of Iowa's Democratic some four months before they caucus. And some positive attention from the national press in process.
As the Washington Post reports:
Edwards is casting himself as the candidate of rural voters, someone who understands the plight and values of family farmers (especially powerful in Iowa) and who could do in a general election what he argues Clinton and Obama could not: attract culturally conservative voters in states such as Virginia, voters who consider gun ownership an important right and aren't thrown by his drawl.If Saunders is correct, Edwards might be the ideal Democratic opponent to Sen. Fred Thompson: a young, homespun, but wealthy relative outsider, battle tested in fight for the people against the powerful – and, ultimately, an "authentic" voice for the millions whose fortunes did not multiply in almost two decades of economic expansion. In increasingly tough times, populist appeal might be just that – appealing. And in the Purple States, times are truly tough. Here, Edwards might be one of the few candidates, in either party, capable of culling voters from the other side.
"I think this Southern Baptist has a better chance of being elected pope than Hillary Clinton does of being elected president in a general election," quipped David "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist in Virginia who is advising Edwards and who helped get Mark R. Warner elected governor and James Webb elected to the Senate in the state.
"Rural America is pivotal. It's where the battleground is going to be, and rural America is saying, 'To hell with the Republicans,' " Saunders said. "But you've got to have the right candidate, one who can get through to the culture."
If Democrats are willing to look who can win – with coattails – Edwards might well be "The Comeback Kid" of 2008.