Washington Post Staff Writer
With overflow crowds and his populist economic message and his Internet-friendly campaign organization, John Edwards signaled this week that, if he has anything to say about it, the race for the Democratic presidential nomination will be about more than just Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
Edwards 2.0 is a revised version of his beta candidacy of 2004. He begins his second campaign for the White House with the kind of self-confidence that comes only from having tried and failed once before. "My biased self-perception is that both the campaign and what's happened since then has had a maturing effect on me," he said in an interview here Friday, adding: "I think that it's just a calmness that's different.
There are also critical adjustments in his candidacy that position him to compete against Clinton and Obama, the party's two unannounced glamour candidates of the moment. Edwards will be able to run to the left of Clinton in a party whose base has shifted leftward during the Bush presidency. And this time, questions about lack of experience will go first to Obama.
The most significant change for Edwards comes in what was his most serious weakness -- foreign policy and national security. When he ran in 2004, his lack of foreign policy experience was magnified by the post-Sept. 11 focus on global terrorism. Like many Democrats interested in national office, he supported the resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq.
In 2004, he did not walk away from that vote. But earlier this year he did, and he has not looked back. He calls the vote a mistake and says all politicians must come to terms with their past positions on the war, regardless of their rhetoric today. That represents a subtle challenge to Clinton, who has been reluctant to call her vote for the war a mistake.
Edwards also has joined the majority of Democrats in calling for the withdrawal of almost one-third of the U.S. troops currently stationed in Iraq. "What you begin with is a fundamental threshold question of what is the most effective way to put the burden on them to come to some political solution," he said in the interview. "My own judgment, and I think it's the judgment of many others, is the most effective way to shift that burden to them is for us to begin to reduce our presence there."
Edwards knows he will continue to get questions from reporters about his foreign policy expertise, as he did on Thursday when he launched his candidacy. Though he believes most Americans think someone who has been on a national ticket is qualified to be president, he knows that even minor mistakes on his part -- a slip of the tongue, the inability to answer an obscure question -- will be potentially damaging.
But he had a ready answer this week to the question of national security experience: Bush had the most experienced team in history, and still the United States ended up in a mess in Iraq. Experience, he said, is not a guarantee of good judgment.
As he did last time, Edwards is running on themes of economic populism, and given the success of many Democratic House candidates in this fall's midterm elections, those themes may have even more resonance today than they did in 2004.
Edwards has settled comfortably into the left-of-center position in the Democratic field, pairing positions that excite the party's liberal base with an upbeat message of hope and optimism. He has worked to deepen his relationships with organized labor, especially in Nevada, which is holding an early 2008 caucus, and he will challenge Clinton and Obama for the endorsements of key unions.
Edwards supports universal health care, which he said means health care for every American, not just most. "As you remember from 2004, there were a bunch of people waltzing around saying they had a universal health care plan that didn't cover everybody," he said. "Politicians tend to do that."
He said he is examining two ideas and weighing whether to support a more ambitious and costly plan or one that may be more politically achievable. But he said both would meet his test of universality.
Edwards also refuses to let his domestic ambitions be held hostage to the words "fiscal discipline." Though he acknowledges that the deficit has become a problem under Bush, he said the bigger priority is investing in health care, alternative energy sources, and programs designed to strengthen the middle class and attack poverty.
His ultimate goal may be to hold the deficit roughly where it is or slightly lower, rather than seeking a substantial reduction. "If we do energy, health care, serious middle-class poverty proposals, then I think we're talking about just trying to keep the deficit in check," he said.
Although he staged a scaled-down declaration of candidacy in New Orleans on Thursday, he drew large crowds at stops in Iowa and New Hampshire. Well over 1,000 people turned out Thursday night in Des Moines, and a crowd of that size or slightly larger showed up for his town hall meeting Friday in Portsmouth, where several hundred were turned away because there was no room.
Edwards rarely drew crowds that large in New Hampshire in 2004, except during the final few days of the primary campaign, and only after finishing a surprising second in Iowa. The reception he received on his announcement tour provided a reminder that Obama is not the only Democrat capable of attracting attention.
As he began his second campaign, Edwards did not mention his roots as the son of a mill worker, a staple of his message the first time around. Also gone was his campaign anthem from 2004, John Mellencamp's "Small Town." Even Edwards got sick of it.
Plenty of issues confront Edwards this time out. His people skills long have raised questions about whether there are heft and substance to complement his natural talents as a campaigner. His new emphasis on asking citizens to take action now, rather than waiting on government, leads one to ask exactly what he wants people to do to combat global warming, eradicate poverty and repair the damage along the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Edwards said he no longer believes, as he once did, that presidential campaigns turn on issues and policy positions. Instead they are forums for demonstrating the capacity to inspire and lead. "I think presidential elections are a very different breed of cat," he said in June. "I think they're much more about character and leadership and integrity than they are about a particular issue."
Having been through an earlier campaign, Edwards now feels confident that he knows what to concentrate on. "I spent most of my time last time learning how to be a presidential candidate," he said this fall. "I didn't know how to do it. I woke up every day worrying about how to be a better candidate than I was yesterday. Now that's not what I think about. I wake up today thinking about what should the president be doing about these things. It's just totally different."
Edwards hopes that knowledge will help produce a different outcome this time around.
Watch The Video Of Edward's Announcement