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Will the Second Time Be the Charm for John Edwards?

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry won the Democratic presidential nomination during the first few months of 2004, but John Edwards, then a Senator from North Carolina, won the hearts and minds of many Democratic and Independent primary voters and caucus attendees. [IMGCAP(1)]

The question for Edwards is how he should spend the next year and a half, until the national media and activists in Iowa and New Hampshire start whittling down the ’08 field.

From the very first time I met Edwards — when he was challenging Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) — I assumed that he would run for president. Since then, I’ve often noted his charisma and terrific speaking style, including his ability to connect with an audience, though I have also criticized individual performances, such as his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in the summer of 2003.

Edwards can light up a room with his smile, and if you’ve ever seen him stand in the middle of a small group and deliver a campaign spiel, you know how he can touch a crowd, both with his energy and with his empathy.

But despite the high marks he received last year, the former North Carolina Senator must strengthen his case for 2008. He has two challenges to address immediately. He must add to his national security credentials — a necessity for winning the White House, if not the Democratic nomination — and address criticisms about his substance and accomplishments.

Many observers also believe that he must figure out a way to be relevant now that he no longer is in office.

While such potential ’08 Democratic contenders as Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Kerry, Joseph Biden (Del.) and Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Govs. Mark Warner (Va.) and Tom Vilsack (Iowa) currently benefit from the bully pulpit of an elected office, Edwards has no office that guarantees him media coverage.

Instead, the former Senator has had to build himself a new platform. So he’s become director of the University of North Carolina’s new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. He has already used that platform, as well as his own One America Committee, to keep himself in front of Democratic audiences.

In February, he spoke at the 100 Club Dinner in New Hampshire. Last month, it was the New School in New York City. He spoke a few days ago at the Oklahoma Democratic Party dinner, and he was scheduled to speak Saturday at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s Jackson Dinner in June.

Last week, he announced through a One America Committee press release a “project to help Democrats build and maintain majorities in state legislatures around the country.” Sounds like politics, doesn’t it?

And that brings us to Edwards’ first problem. When asked by Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover on “Iowa Press” in early April whether he was again running for president, Edwards said, “No, I have a campaign right now and a cause, but that cause is not politics — it’s poverty.”

That was the right answer, but some observers find it a hard sell, given the amount of time Edwards has spent with state party activists and in political settings.

“By running off to a J-J [Jefferson-Jackson] Dinner the day after he announced his poverty initiative, Edwards took something that is serious and thoughtful and turned it into an adjunct of his campaign,” one keen observer of Democratic politics insisted.

On one hand, Edwards’ effort to take on an intractable social problem is admirable. It could conceivably give him the seriousness and gravitas that he lacked last cycle. On the other hand, its launch undermined its impact. Edwards says he isn’t doing politics, but his actions speak louder than his words.

But doesn’t Edwards need to “stay relevant” now that he is out of office? No, he doesn’t. (I’ll admit that this wasn’t my initial view.) It’s far more important for him to add to his presidential credentials than to his party credentials.

In the meantime, Edwards’ second problem involves campaign positioning for 2008.

With Sen. Clinton likely to start the race as the favorite of many party activists, other Democrats seeking the nomination will be competing to become the alternative to her.

Some, like Vilsack or Warner, can run as governors and outsiders who aren’t part of the Washington mess. Moreover, they can run from the South and Midwest — just the areas many Democrats think the party needs to win. Bayh served as a popular governor of a very Republican state, and his record and style are sufficiently moderate to make him an interesting pragmatic choice for president.

Edwards’ Southern accent and Carolina background suggest that he could compete with Warner, Vilsack and Bayh on geography, and his move from the nation’s capital back to North Carolina signals he’ll run as a “North Carolina candidate,” rather than as a someone from Washington.

But the former Senator’s rhetoric, both during his 2004 presidential bid and since November, means that he could only run from the left — from Hillary Clinton’s left.

Edwards has positioned himself as an economic populist at the forefront of the war against the wealthy. In speech after speech, he has attacked Republicans for protecting the wealthy and promised to defend the worker. It’s red-meat, class-warfare rhetoric, but Democrats likely to respond to it are also likely to line up behind the New York Senator.

So the question for Edwards is, where is his opening in a multi-candidate race against Clinton? He needs to answer that, at least for himself, sooner rather than later.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.

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