I still remember the first time I saw John Edwards. It was in May 1998, and he was seeking the Democratic nomination in North Carolina for the right to challenge incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. [IMGCAP(1)]
Seeing as many candidates as I do, I often forget my initial reactions when I meet and interview someone for the first time. But not with Edwards.
In the middle of my interview with the Senate hopeful, I remember thinking, “This guy is going to run for president some day.” As I recall, I thought even then that he would have a decent chance of eventually settling into the Oval Office.
Edwards came across as a well-scrubbed one-time high school captain of the basketball team. I told people — and subsequently wrote in this space — that he could have been one of the characters from the movie “Hoosiers,” which followed the trials, tribulations and successes of an Indiana high school basketball team from the sticks as it won the state basketball crown.
The lawyer was smooth without being slick. He seemed natural and authentic. He was far more articulate than most politicians, and he had the charisma that few politicians possess. In short, he was one of the best candidates I ever interviewed.
Edwards went on to win his party’s Senate nomination by beating two primary opponents: D.G. Martin, a two-time unsuccessful Congressional candidate who went on to become vice president for public affairs of the University of North Carolina system, and Ella Scarborough, an African-American woman who had served five terms on Charlotte’s city council. Face it, it wasn’t the most intimidating field.
In that race, Edwards ran TV spots blasting the insurance companies, lobbyists and “special interests.” He won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and the state education organization primarily because he seemed to have the best chance of defeating Faircloth.
Edwards’ personal wealth and fundraising success among trial lawyers (a combination that he repeated in his bid for the presidency) made him a uniquely strong candidate. But it also aroused some criticism from his primary opponents. Martin, for example, complained that Edwards’ reliance on trial-lawyer money undercut his claim of political independence.
At the same time, Edwards was able to portray Faircloth not only as too conservative but also as a relic of the past. The obvious age differences of the two men — Faircloth was 70, while Edwards was in his mid-40s and could have easily passed for 35 — set up an obvious contrast of the past versus the future. It was a contrast that didn’t help the Republican.
Then, almost four years after that first meeting with Edwards, the freshman Senator bombed on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Instead of acting natural and trying to answer the questions of host Tim Russert, Edwards sounded like an over-coached phony who was long on ambition and short on substance — and answers.
When I eventually grilled Edwards on his performance, he didn’t return my fire. Far from it, in fact: He actually had kind things to say about my less-than-kind criticisms.
Cynics will say that the Senator was simply trying to ingratiate himself with me. Maybe. But even if that was the case, it showed political savvy. I have, after all, encountered almost the diametrically opposed reaction from other politicians, and Edwards’ approach worked better.
I do not believe that Edwards’ selection will mean victory or defeat for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). This October, voters will focus on two questions. First, should President Bush be re-elected? And second, who do I want to lead the nation for the next four years, Bush or Kerry?
That said, I still think that Edwards was a good choice.
Edwards brings energy and charisma to the ticket. He proved his campaign skills on the stump in Iowa and New Hampshire, and he delivers an optimistic message effectively. He has also been tested under fire and performed well. “Trial lawyer” and “show horse” attacks haven’t worked against him in the past.
Grassroots Democrats like the North Carolina Senator, and that’s a huge plus. Instead of having to explain why he didn’t pick Edwards, Kerry can take advantage of the enthusiasm that greeted Edwards’ pick.
Edwards had considerable appeal in suburban communities during his presidential bid, but his small-town upbringing, Southern twang and working-class message give him potentially broad appeal.
And Democrats have reason to be optimistic about the North Carolina Senator’s performance in the vice presidential debate. Edwards is the kind of debater who can flash a pleasant smile one minute, while twisting a knife in his opponent’s gut the next.
Of course, Edwards has weaknesses, and I don’t expect him to help the Democratic ticket carry any states that Kerry can’t.
Democrats are now promising that North Carolina will be in play in the presidential race, and some observers even suggest that Edwards’ selection makes North Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Erskine Bowles a favorite in his race. I don’t buy either assertion — at least not yet.
Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.