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Edwards, Bowles Fail to Clear Air

A July 10 meeting between Sen. John Edwards and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles ended in a stalemate and did little to clear up the question of who would represent North Carolina Democrats in next year’s Senate race.

Although neither side would go on the record to document the exact events of the meeting between Bowles and Edwards, a picture of the proceedings emerged through a number of discussions with operatives privy to the conversation.

According to those sources, Edwards offered Bowles — and any other interested Democrats, including former state Rep. Dan Blue — the opportunity to begin raising money for a bid even as the freshman Senator continues to mull a decision about whether to simultaneously seek the presidency and a second term.

The only catch is that the prospective Democratic candidates would have to promise to drop out of the Senate race if Edwards chose to stand for re-election.

Speculation widely held in Democratic circles is that Bowles rejected the proposal because of concerns that the specter of an Edwards Senate candidacy would keep donors from fully backing his own effort and further complicate what would be an already uphill campaign.

Although Bowles spent better than $7 million in his unsuccessful campaign against Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) in 2002, he does not want to dip as deeply into his own pocket if he makes this race, Democratic sources said last week.

An Edwards’ spokesman disputed the description of the meeting but would not provide the Senator’s account of events.

“The Senator and Mr. Bowles had a private meeting that they both agreed to keep private,” said Communications Director David Ginsberg. “We continue to honor that.”

The meeting — and its reverberations — are only the latest dust-up in a budding rivalry between the Edwards and Bowles camps regarding the 2004 Senate race.

Bowles has publicly, but politely, urged Edwards to make a final decision on the race by Labor Day in order to allow him adequate time to raise the funds necessary to conduct a top-tier campaign.

Edwards has not publicly announced a deadline for deciding whether he will run in both races or choose one. When confronted with the possibility of allowing other candidates to open Senate campaign committees while he ponders his future, Edwards has said it is not a prospect he has thought about.

Interestingly, Edwards and Bowles have long been considered political allies and have supported each other in past campaigns.

In 1998, Bowles was the chief organizer behind a fundraiser featuring then-President Bill Clinton that brought in $400,000 for Edwards’ campaign. Bowles also served as chairman of Edwards’ leadership PAC, the New American Optimists, although he stepped down from that post after deciding to run for the Senate in late 2001.

Edwards helped to raise funds and did several campaign appearances for Bowles in 2002. Dole won that race 54 percent to 45 percent.

The uncertainty about the future party nominee is exacerbated by the aggressive fundraising strategy put in place by Rep. Richard Burr (R), who is vacating his 5th district seat after five terms to run for the Senate.

Burr raised $1.5 million over the past three months, swelling his campaign coffers to nearly $3.5 million. That was the fifth-highest cash on hand total of any candidate running in 2004 and the highest of any non-incumbent.

Burr has sought to exploit the Edwards-Bowles situation by seeking out fundraisers who have been active on behalf of Democrats in the past to hold events for him.

Prior to the June 30 filing deadline, two men who helped collect dollars for Bowles’ 2002 Senate campaign held fundraisers for Burr.

Paul Schumaker, a consultant to the Burr campaign, said the primary effect of the Democratic turmoil is that his candidate can conserve funds for the costly general election.

“The uncertainty helps us on our timeline of expenditures,” said Schumaker. Burr spent just $123,000 in the last three months.

The situation is not without complications for Burr, however.

“We are having to maintain opposition research profiles on several candidates,” explained Schumaker.

North Carolina is one of several problematic southern seats for Senate Democrats as they seek to regain the majority they lost in the 2002 election.

In Georgia where Sen. Zell Miller (D) is retiring, Democrats have yet to field a top-tier candidate, while GOP Reps. Johnny Isakson and Mac Collins are both seeking their party’s nomination.

Potential retirements in Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana could further complicate Democrats’ already difficult task.

Only Sen. Don Nickles (Okla.) is seen as a retirement possibility on the Republican side.

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