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After Shaky Start, Edwards Begins To Hit His Stride

It was just about one year ago that I wrote in this space about Sen. John Edwards’ appearance on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

Let’s just say that I wasn’t exactly complimentary about the North Carolina Democrat’s initial foray into the 2004 presidential race. I suggested that he lacked substance and sincerity, and I added that if he wanted to show leadership, he needed to do so by proposing ideas and grappling with tough choices, not by merely repeating the word “leadership.”

So how is Edwards doing now? [IMGCAP(1)]

By most measures, the Tar Heel Senator is off to quite a good start. He’s one of three Democratic presidential contenders (along with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt) who currently seem capable of winning the party’s nomination next year.

Edwards’ performance at the winter Democratic National Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., was solid. A proven campaigner among small groups, he delivered a strong speech that challenged President Bush and energized the large audience. No, he wasn’t former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, but Edwards isn’t striving to be an in-your-face liberal long shot.

Edwards’ refusal to back off from his support for the war in Iraq certainly cost him some support within his party, but it’s far more important that he demonstrated a commitment to principle and a tenacity in the face of criticism than it is for him to hold a particular position on the issue.

Indeed, Edwards could ultimately benefit from the catcalls of anti-war activists, since for some, his willingness to hold the line may transform him from an overly ambitious pretty boy with brains into a tough, committed Senator who wants to do what’s right for the country. Or at least that’s what Edwards must hope.

The Senator’s first-quarter fundraising results obviously were eye-catching. He raked in an impressive $7.4 million, ending March with $5.7 million in the bank. In outraising Kerry and the rest of the field for the quarter and placing second in cash on hand, Edwards demonstrated he’ll have the resources to mount a national campaign and to go head-to-head with Kerry, Dean, Gephardt and Sens. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and Bob Graham (Fla.) in the early states.

Allegations of fundraising improprieties by the Senator’s campaign are a minor bump in the road, as long as they are not part of a larger pattern. Kerry and Gephardt also want to raise cash from those same contributors, so they can only go so far in criticizing Edwards. While the North Carolina Senator had a strong first quarter, he will need to continue to show solid numbers to convince onlookers that he is raising money from sources beyond the trial lawyer community.

Edwards’ campaign has already had some personnel turnover, with Steve Jarding leaving for Graham’s campaign and Bob Shrum jumping to the Kerry camp. But change isn’t necessarily bad (it can even be a plus in terms of chemistry and chain of command), and the turnover should have little negative effect on the campaign.

Edwards’ biggest vulnerability remains questions about substance and experience, and he is taking steps to answer his critics on those topics. He sends out more than his share of e-mails about policy positions and gave early “major” speeches on the economy and domestic security.

But these aren’t the sort of questions that are easily dismissed. The Senator is going to be tested repeatedly about his knowledge of issues and his qualifications for the nation’s top job, and he’ll have to be convincing time and again.

Campaign-related and international developments since last summer have had a mixed effect on Edwards’ prospects.

The entry of Graham into the race adds another Southern Senator to the field, as well as someone who has demonstrated the ability to attract black voters. The campaigns of the Rev. Al Sharpton and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun (Ill.) also make it difficult for Edwards to do as well as he initially hoped with African Americans.

On the other hand, the early attention (and potential strength) of Dean adds a New England voice on the left, complicating matters for both Kerry and Gephardt.

Geography remains a major factor in assessing Edwards’ prospects. If Missouri’s Gephardt holds onto Iowa and Massachusetts’ Kerry wins in New Hampshire, Edwards may well need a win in South Carolina on Feb. 3 to keep his chances alive. That won’t be easy if he fares poorly in the initial contests. On the other hand, if Gephardt badly underperforms in Iowa, Edwards could emerge as the party’s alternative to Kerry.

One of Edwards’ strengths is that, as one Democratic spinner puts it, “He can transcend divisions within the party.” That means he’ll be an attractive alternative for the supporters of candidates who eventually drop from the race.

Finally, Edwards clearly has more charisma than any of the other credible Democrats in the race, and that factor ought not to be ignored. When the presidential hopefuls start to sell their wares to actual voters and caucus attendees, not just Capitol Hill insiders, the personal appeal of the candidates will take on added importance.

Edwards still has much to prove as a presidential contender, but he has passed a number of critical recent tests, and he remains very much a factor in the race.

Rothenberg Political Report

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