Edwards Snags Second Place (Remarkably)|
The come-from-way-behind kid proves he’s not going away
Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2004
John Edwards’ campaign staff spent much of the day of the Iowa Caucuses saying that they had already won, no matter what the returns said that night. They would have been happy even if they had finished fourth; after months of being mired in single digits, the exciting surge in the polls and the growing crowds at Edwards’ events proved that he is a viable contender for the White House. As long as he wasn’t too far off from the leadersmaybe fourth or even thirdhe could head to New Hampshire and the later primary states with a fighting chance.
It turns out that he’s got a lot more than that. With a stunning second place finish that caught everyone by surprise and 32% of the Iowa vote, Edwards has regained his post as a top-tier candidate for the Democratic nomination. And his campaign staff has regained confidence that his positive message works after months of being overshadowed by campaigns with harsher rhetoric. “I came here a year ago with a belief that we could change this country, with a belief that the politics of what was possible, the politics of hope could beat the politics of cynicism,” said Edwards in his victory speech.
Edwards’ positive message had to be the deciding factor in his surge. Even without the ground organizations of Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, Edwards was able to capture the silver. The final reasons won’t be known until the returns are more fully analyzed, but a huge amount of the Iowa electorate remained on the fence until caucus day, and those late deciders swung to Kerry and Edwards. Those fence-sitters might have stayed home in past years, but had an added motivation: They want George W. Bush out of the White House so badly that nominating the strongest opponent has become more important than the perfect candidate. People at Edwards stump events often mentioned his positive attitude as the factor that swung their allegiance to him. Many who voted for him either saw him in person or watched him speaking on C-SPAN, where they could see the connections he makes with people. “I just like his stylehe’s so nice,” says Amanda Althoff, a Des Moines attorney who only decided last week to back the North Carolinian. “And I’m so ticked off with Dean.”
Edwards’ victory is a redemption for his strategy and his staff. When Dean began to take a lead in early polls by tapping the anger of hardcore Democrats, Gephardt and John Kerry began getting louder and angrier on the stump. Edwards stuck to the Clinton mantra, that people want hope and an optimistic vision from candidates. “A year ago he was talking about who he is and where he wants to lead the country; yesterday, he was talking about who he is and where he wants to lead the country,” says Campaign Chairman Ed Turlington. “The original idea paid off in Iowa and it will pay off in later states.”
Before the hotel staff at Des Moines’ Renaissance Savery Hotel had a chance to sweep up the confetti, the Senator was on a plane heading to New Hampshire, where he held a 3 am rally. That’s the way primaries goa year’s worth of building an organization and within hours of the polls closing, the campaign is off to the next battleground. Edwards has vowed to fight in New Hampshire rather than skip ahead to South Carolina. The first primary state is no more clear than Iowa. Gephardt’s tearful withdrawal has made this a seven-man race, but Wes Clark’s addition to the field makes this just as hard to predict. Clark has been moving up in polls, while Dean has been slipping, and the Vermont governor’s disappointing Iowa third will only drag his poll numbers in N.H. down further. Kerry’s win could give him momentum in New Hampshire, but he had to move staff from there and South Carolina to Iowa to get that win. Has that hurt his chances?
As for Edwards, he now needs to follow up his January surprise. He could benefit from a slugfest between the three frontrunners, just as he did in Iowa, but he has only a week left to try and mount another come from behind. And if retail politics is his strong suit, can he make the transition to relying on TV ads when he starts campaigning in seven states for the Feb. 3 primaries and caucuses? Edwards certainly thinks so, and with his message redeemed Monday night, there’s a better chance than ever that he could be right.
The Iowa Caucuses are either a wonderful display of direct democracy and neighbors discussing politics, or an inefficient, ill-conceived relic of the past. Depends upon who you ask and when. Caucus goers in Des Moines District Nine probably didn’t have a great opinion of the process at 7pm, 30 minutes after their caucus was supposed to begin. The district’s precinct chairwoman had backed out of doing it at 4pmshe said it was due to a sore throat, but some voters whispered that she just wanted to be able to campaign more freely for Dick Gephardt. Either way, her substitute hadn’t shown up yet, and one voter had to leave to take her kids home, not realizing the caucuses weren’t a five- minute exercise in democracy.
But at 7pm, the new precinct chair arrived and started going through some formalities. All her neighbors were itching to divide up by which candidate they were supporting, so after a quick vote to skip reading letters by state Democratic officials, the caucus-goers split up. No more unity tonight. Large groups went over to corners of the room with Kerry and Edwards’ signs while smaller groups grouped together for Gephardt, Dean and Kucinich. One man plopped himself down in a chair in the middle and declared himself uncommitted. He might as well have said, “Free donuts,” because members of all the other groups pounced on him, explaining why he should join their groups. The entire process had a cultic flavorJoin us, joiiiiiinnnnn usssss. After a while he wandered over to the Kerry camp, possibly because they had the largest crowd.
Things were less rosy in Camp Kucinich. Based on the total number of caucusers, each candidate needed 11 supporters to be viable and get a delegate. At seven voters, Kucinich wasn’t winning tonight. That sent more waves of propagandists over from the various groups, trying to lure them to their club. The Edwards precinct captain pointed out that Dennis Kucinich had asked supporters to back John Edwards if they proved not to be viable. That lured four Kuci folks away. Then two Kerry supporters began fiercely begging the remaining undecideds. The Edwards captain got in their faces. These arguments were repeated all over the room as supporters tried to lure other supporters to their camp. Some of their arguments were good, with detailed discussions of the candidates’ proposals and records. Others were not. Someone accused John Kerry’s wife Teresa of spelling her name in a foreign manner and not speaking English, which will probably be news to her. Having heard there was an actual fight between Gore and Bradley supporters four years ago (possibly over who was more boring) I prepared to take cover.
Meanwhile, the Dean supporters were sitting dejectedly in their area with only ten supporters. They were not viable. They tried vainly to gain one supporter, but no one budged. They were told they could split up or not be counted. Heartbroken and pouting, they opted for the latter. The Chairwoman made her final count: Kerry 29, Edwards 24, Gephardt 13. After plugging those numbers into an algorithm Einstein wouldn’t touch with a corn stalk, she allocated two delegates to Kerry and one each to Gephardt and Edwards. As the Dean supporters dejectedly walked out, I told them to cheer uphe was probably kicking butt everywhere else in the state. That did not turn out to be the case.
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