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Mr. Smooth’s Big Chance

John Kerry is as shaky as he is tall. Which is why John Edwards still could topple him.

By 2.19.04

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Can Senator John Edwards win the Democratic nomination? His surprise showing in Wisconsin suddenly has the punditry buzzing. "Senator Edwards' second-place showing made it easier for him to argue that the 29 days since the Iowa caucuses have not been enough time to pick his party's best-tested nominee," glowed an article in Wednesday's New York Times. Meanwhile Kerry seems to have peaked. His poor debate performance coupled with the non-story story about a possible extra-marital affair have slowed his momentum.

But has it slowed it sufficiently? Kerry is still well out in front of Edwards in the delegate count, 608 to 190. For Edwards to reach the needed 2,162 delegates, he would have to win 62% of the remaining delegates in the upcoming primaries and caucuses. That's a Herculean task, though not impossible. If Edwards really wants to upend Kerry, here is what he needs to do:

Idaho or Utah: Edwards needs a win in one of these two states next week to build on whatever momentum he got from Wisconsin. He should focus on Idaho, since it is smaller in population, giving Edwards a better chance of meeting as many voters as possible. With a win in one of these two states, he would gather even more momentum for Super Tuesday March 2. It would also show that he can win among Democrats who are, on average, more conservative than Democrats on the whole. This is vital, because it would help him boost his…

Electability, Electability, Electability: Edwards needs to hammer home the most important lesson of Wisconsin: that he could do far better among Republicans and Independents in a general election than Kerry. He should repeat this fact ad nauseam. With a victory in Idaho or Utah, he can show that he can carry a state with more conservative Democrats that isn't in the South. By adding that feather in his cap, the only hole remaining in his electability argument is that he is a trial lawyer.

Debate, Debate, Debate: Last Sunday in Wisconsin Edwards gave as many yes/no answers as Kerry gave evasive ones. Edwards should challenge Kerry to as many debates as possible. With Howard Dean now out of the race, more debates would only sharpen the differences between Kerry and Edwards, almost certainly to Edwards' benefit. And if Kerry ducks Edwards, that will only make Kerry look like he is afraid.

A Major Foreign Policy Speech: Edwards is an absolute lightweight on foreign policy. Shawn Macomber noticed that he rarely mentioned the War on Terrorism in his stump speeches in New Hampshire; I noticed the same thing on reviewing my tapes of Edwards' speeches in Iowa. Edwards could remedy this by using an innovative idea proposed yesterday by Lee Harris in the Wall Street Journal. The gist is that someone like Edwards needs to address Americans' "skeptical doubt about the feasibility of extending liberalism to parts of the world that have no indigenous history of liberalism." Were Edwards to give an address outlining the limits of America's ability to spread democracy around the world, he would signal that he is ready to challenge President Bush over foreign policy. It would also put Kerry on the defensive, who as of late has sounded like Bill Clinton on foreign affairs. It could also touch off a national political debate that this country should have during this election season.

No More Mister Nice Guy: In his stump speeches, Edwards likes to say, "If you are looking for the candidate who will do the best job of smacking at the other Democratic candidates, I'm not your guy." Come on, John, it's time to drop the sugary-sweet act. The only way to bring down the frontrunner is to attack him. Surely there is plenty in Kerry's record. For example, Kerry likes to boast that he voted for Ronald Reagan's tax cut of 1986, which reduced the top marginal income-tax rate to 28%. Why not hit him for cutting taxes for the rich? Such an attack would only add to Kerry's vulnerability as a waffler.

It is still possible for Edwards to pull off a huge political upset. Yes, Edwards' chances are slim. But then, so were Kerry's barely six weeks ago.

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David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.