DES MOINES, IOWA—To give you an idea of how crowded Iowa is with presidential candidates and those who follow them, here’s what happened in the first hour and a half after I landed here Wednesday night: At baggage claim, I encountered two Kerry campaign workers in need of a lift, so I dropped them off at Kerry HQ, which is downtown in what used to be a car dealership. Moments later, when I pulled up in front of my hotel, the “Real Solutions Express”—the big, blue, star-spangled Edwards bus—was sitting outside. After I checked in, I rode up the elevator with Juan Williams. Ten minutes later, my next elevator ride was with Aaron Pickerel, the Iowa political director for the Edwards campaign. In 20 minutes of TV viewing, I saw ads for Dean, Kerry, Kucinich (“Did I approve this commercial? You bet”), Edwards, Dean again, and Kucinich again.
Two days ago, the Iowa storyline seemed pretty clear: Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt would duke it out for first place, and John Kerry and John Edwards would compete for third. But now, if the latest Zogby poll is to be believed, it’s a four-way run for the finish. No one seems to have any idea how things are going to go down on Monday, but at the moment, the race feels so close that the results won’t winnow a single candidate from the race.
Right now, the biggest mystery of the campaign to me is what’s gotten into John Edwards? After his spectacular performance at the Des Moines Register debate earlier this month, I thought to myself, “Too little, too late.” After the Register endorsed him, I yawned. But a campaign rally this afternoon at the Renaissance Savery Hotel is the first Edwards event I’ve witnessed where an enthusiastic crowd gave him the aura of a winner. Before today, I’d only seen Howard Dean and Wesley Clark perform this well. (I’ll weigh in with a judgment on John Kerry after I see him tonight.)
North Carolina Gov. Michael Easley introduces Edwards with the best introduction speech I’ve heard for any candidate this campaign. He praises Edwards’ opponents, saying: “They’ve all served our country well. I don’t have anything negative to say about any of them, and neither does Sen. Edwards.” Then he says something artfully negative about them anyway. “I’m running [for re-election] this time, and I want to run with someone I can run with, not from.” Easley prepares the crowd for Edwards’ theme: The North Carolina senator has dropped his aw-shucks, son of a mill worker, I’ve-done-this-my-whole-life campaign, and now presents himself as a fighter who has defeated powerful interests and powerful Republicans. “When he decided to run [for U.S. senator], he took on the toughest Republican establishment in the history of this country,” Easley says.
Edwards has expanded one of the most effective portions of his stump speech, the part about “two school systems, one for the haves, and one for the have-nots,” and turned it into the campaign theme. There are “two Americas,” he says: two school systems, two tax systems, two economies, even “two governments in Washington, D.C.” America also has “two images all around the world,” the shining City on a Hill versus a new, less flattering image that’s been created by President Bush.
Edwards has always gone after lobbyists, but now he’s more strident about it. “We ought to cut these lobbyists off at the knees,” he says. “We ought to ban them from making political contributions.” He rails against the “revolving door” between lobbying and government, and he condemns “war profiteering.” “We ought to ban these companies from making political contributions at the same time they’re bidding on Iraq.”
Of the corporate lawyers who underestimated him in the courtroom, Edwards yells: “I beat ‘em. And I beat ‘em again. And I beat ‘em again.” Ditto for “the Jesse Helms political machine,” which underestimated him during his race for the U.S. Senate, he says. “And now I’m the senior senator from North Carolina, not Jesse Helms! And that is good for America!” (This fires up the crowd, but won’t John Edwards not be the senior senator from North Carolina next year, because he decided to run for president instead of re-election? Is that bad for America?)
By the end of his speech, Edwards is sounding more and more like the man he’s been chasing, Howard Dean. Up to now, most of the non-Deans have been trying to copy Dean’s message by mimicking his anger, but Edwards zeroes in on another part of Dean’s pitch, the part about empowering “you.” Edwards promises to take away Washington from “that crowd of insiders in Washington, D.C.,” and restore it to you. He can’t do it alone, he says: “You and I are going to do it together.” And the last line of his speech is no longer about himself, about an America in which the son of a mill worker can beat the son of a president. Instead, the son of a mill worker sounds like the son of a stockbroker: “I believe in you.”
On the subject of speaking precisely: I’ve been inundated with complaints about my recent piece that listed six statements made by Wesley Clark in New Hampshire. Unfortunately, I lumped statements that are objectively inaccurate (there were no terrorists in Iraq before the war) with statements that are demagogic (we could find Osama Bin Laden “if we wanted to”) with statements that are imprecise (the statement that Bush “never intended to put the resources in to get Osama Bin Laden” can be defended logically, but so can Howard Dean’s statement about the “Saudi tip-off” conspiracy theory that a secretive administration breeds conspiracy theories; neither are smart politics) with statements that are merely provocative and controversial and could be used to tar Clark unfairly (for example, I think it’s unwise for Clark to focus on whether 9/11 was preventable). And I didn’t outline which statement I believe falls in which category.
The point of the piece, which was admittedly not clear, was to suggest that Clark may not be the “electable Dean” that his supporters believe he is. Both candidates have a propensity to make statements that range from impolitic to provocative to simply inaccurate. If you like Clark or Dean, you’re predisposed to excuse these statements or to see them as courageous truth-telling. If you don’t like them, you have a different reaction. I wanted to highlight this similarity between the two candidates, which belies the consensus that Clark is supported by careful centrists and Dean by angry liberals. I wish I had been more precise.