Behind the Edwards Surge: Right Message at the Right Time
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Much was made of Illinois Senator Barack Obama's superb speech to a huge crowd of Iowa Democrats at the mid-November Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner in Des Moines. Without a doubt, it helped to propel Obama ahead of New York Senator Hillary Clinton in polls conducted in the weeks after the event.
But Obama's speech in November may not turn out to be the definitional statement of the fight for Iowa.
What could turn out to be the most critical comment of the campaign came from John Edwards in the last debate between the Democratic contenders -- and the former senator from North Carolina may well claim the caucus-night victory that is the reward for delivering the right message at the right time.
It wasn't a great rhetorical flourish. It wasn't even a new statement. Rather, it was a particularly pointed and effective restatement of the core anti-corporate message of his campaign.
But it came precisely when Iowa Democrats were getting serious about the caucuses. And it gave Edwards the boost he needed to get back in the competition -- and, he is, very much in the competition now.
No serious observer of the December 13 debate in Des Moines doubted that the standout performance, and the standout message, was that of Edwards.
Indeed, undecided voters assembled in focus groups that watched the debate for the major television networks rated Edwards off the charts. That's going to help the 2004 Democratic nominee for vice president as the Iowa caucuses approach. Despite the intense focus on the campaigns of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, most polls suggest that Edwards is very much in the running in Iowa. And rightly so.
To a far greater extent than Obama or Clinton, Edwards has struck at the heart of issues that should matter most in the race to replace not just George W. Bush, but the Bush agenda of corporate giveaways, job-crushing free trade deals, war profiteering in Iraq, and subprime mortgage profiteering in Indiana, Idaho, Illinois and, yes, Iowa.
Edwards summed up his increasingly aggressive and powerful anti-corporate themes with a declaration: "What makes America America is at stake: jobs, the middle class, health care, preserving the environment in the world for future generations.
"But all those things are at risk. And why are they at risk? Because of corporate power and corporate greed in Washington, D.C. And we have to take them on. You can't make a deal with them. You can't hope that they're going to go away. You have to actually be willing to fight. And I want every caucus-goer to know I've been fighting these people and winning my entire life. And if we do this together, rise up together, we can actually make absolutely certain, starting here in Iowa, that we make this country better than we left it."
But the former senator's most effective statement at the Des Moines Register debate on Thursday was one that reflected his deep level of engagement with working people in the upper Midwest, an engagement born of long months spent in Iowa and neighboring states -- at a time when Clinton and Obama were spending considerably more time fighting over who had better relations with the media moguls on Hollywood's A-list and in the suites of Manhattan's mortgage manipulators.
Edwards got to know workers in Iowa. He stood with them in their struggles.
Turning a broad question about human rights toward the specific issue of trade policy, the former senator said that human rights, human needs and human values "should be central to our trade policy."
"But," he added, "if you look at what's happened with American trade policy, look at what America got: Big corporations made a lot of money, are continuing to make a lot of money in China. But what did America get in return? We got millions of dangerous Chinese toys. We lost millions of jobs.
"And right here in Iowa, the Maytag plant in Newton closed. A guy named Doug Bishop, who I got to know very well, had worked in that plant, and his family had worked in that plant literally for generations. And his job is now gone. The same thing, by the way, happened in the plant that my father worked in when I was growing up. It is so important that we stop allowing these corporate powers and corporate profits to run America's policy, whether it's trade policy, how we engage with China. This is not good for America. It's not good for American jobs. And it's not good for working people in this country."
That's an issue Edwards has taken far, far more seriously than his opponents in what is now a three-way race in Iowa. And that seriousness has benefitted the former senator.
Remembering the workers who have been battered by the failed trade policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations matters. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both supporters of recent trade agreements, have never connected on the same level. Edwards, who once had a shaky record on these issues but has come to be a passionate proponent of fair trade, comes across as the candidate who gets it. That's why he won the debate in Des Moines. That's why every serious survey that has been conducted in recent days shows him within striking distance of the Iowa win that once was assumed to be Clinton's for the taking and that was then supposed to be Obama's.
No one who is watching the rapid evolution of this race is any longer counting Edwards out in Iowa -- or in the rest of a yet-to-be-defined race for the Democratic nomination.
John Nichols is The Nation's Washington correspondent.