Is John Edwards Setting the Agenda for the Democratic Nomination?

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- John Edwards may not be leading in the polls. But, he would like to stress, he is leading on the issues.

"I don't need to read a poll, I don't need to see a focus group and I don't need to see what the other candidates are saying," said Mr. Edwards, sitting next to his wife in a blue van pulling away from Kitty's Fine Foods in Charleston. "I know exactly what I would do as president and that's why I have been leading on these issues. And it is exactly the kind of leadership I will provide as president."

Mr. Edwards and his campaign are rallying around the idea that he has demonstrated leadership by getting out front early on major issues, advocating "big change" and then almost daring his rivals to follow his example.

He rejects the notion that there's anything political about it.

"You describe it as if it is some kind of strategic maneuver," said Mr. Edwards, turning around in his seat to face his questioner. "I'm not waiting for anybody else's position. I know what my own views are and I'm going to lead on it."

But he certainly wants to make sure everyone knows it.

During a CNN/YouTube debate of Democratic presidential candidates on the night of July 23, Mr. Edwards said, almost apropos of nothing, "I would challenge every Democrat on this stage today to commit to raising the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by the year 2012."

The line drew applause.

On Tuesday afternoon, after a campaign stop about global warming in McClellanville, he again raised the issue of raising the minimum wage. He told reporters that the "inside Washington" types on the debate stage had failed to respond to his call for an increase.

"So I'm challenging Senator Clinton and Senator Obama and all the other Democrats" to match him, he said.

He has raced to the fore on other issues as well. His call for Congress to strip the funding for the war in Iraq, which he apologized for voting to authorize in 2002, preceded decisions by Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton to abandon their more measured positions on setting a timeline for withdrawal.

Mr. Edwards was the first major candidate this election cycle to deliver a health care plan, which required all Americans to be covered, and to lead a boycott -- that the other major candidates eventually joined -- against participating in a televised debate on Fox.

He stringently opposed a loophole allowing super-rich hedge fund investors to pay extremely low taxes despite collecting a salary from the New York hedge fund firm Fortress. Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, both major beneficiaries of hedge fund money, soon followed suit.

Whenever Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton have offered proposals similar to his, Mr. Edwards seems to have reacted by further sharpening his pitch -- and by reminding his audiences of who had been their first.

On the afternoon of July 24, for example, he told a meeting of steel workers in a union hall in Georgetown, S.C., that he had no interest in negotiating with pharmaceutical companies to improve health care.

"The time to negotiate with them is after we beat them," he said, contrasting himself with candidates favoring a more moderate approach. He then proceeded to list all the other issues he says he came out first on.

"You're showing leadership, that's the issue," said Mr. Edwards' deputy campaign manager Jonathan Prince after the debate on Monday. "Does anybody really think that these guys would have been in favor of defunding the war if we didn't?"

Joe Trippi, Edwards' top strategic advisor -- and the former campaign manager to a certain trend-setting, if ultimately unsuccessful, candidate named Howard Dean -- added, "I don't think there is any doubt that John Edwards has been setting the agenda."

But whatever moral victories Mr. Edwards has won so far over his main Democratic rivals have yet to translate into concrete political gain. Despite adoration from liberal bloggers, he trails in public polls of Democrats nearly everywhere except Iowa, where he has spent far more time than his opponents, and his fund-raising totals have been dwarfed by Mrs. Clinton's and Mr. Obama's.

And where the Edwards campaign presents his outspokenness as an act of bravery, his rivals see a candidate fading in the polls and desperately seeking attention by telling voters what they want to hear before they forget about him.

"I really wouldn't interpret it that if somebody in a campaign gave a speech, it decides the issues," said Mark Penn, Mrs. Clinton's chief pollster and political strategist. Mrs. Clinton, he said, "has been an actual leader for many years. If she's president she's going to drive the agenda in many ways."

Former Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a major Clinton supporter, said he "vehemently" disagreed with the notion that Mrs. Clinton was at all following Mr. Edwards on any issues, especially the war in Iraq.

"In the area of Iraq, her plan is far more comprehensive," said Mr. Vilsack. "I don't know that he has come out with a comprehensive discussion of Iraq other than he wants to get the troops out."

Mr. Obama's campaign, too, took sharp issue with the notion that their candidate had taken any positions in reaction to Mr. Edwards.

"Obama spoke out against the war in 2003, and he has been a consistent opponent since then, so there has been no reason to apologize for his vote," said Jen Psaki, a spokesperson for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, said that Mr. Edwards did not have the same responsibilities and commitments as an elected official.

"Certainly Senator Edwards, as someone who left elective office to run for president, has more flexibility," he said, before adding that there was "nothing path-breaking about the proposals he is making."

The only thing Mr. Edwards had achieved by being first with a health plan, an Iraq plan or a concrete proposal on the minimum wage, both campaigns said, was to be first. They would have gotten around to making their own proposals regardless of what Mr. Edwards did.

In the van, Mr. Edwards reacted angrily to that notion.

"Get to them when?" asked Mr. Edwards, when confronted with that logic. "When you start a campaign for the presidency of the United States you better have a very clear idea about what you want to do as president from day one."

At this point, Mr. Edwards' wife Elizabeth -- who is one of the campaign's best draws and who acts as her husband's closest adviser -- jumped in. "This tells you something about how he will be as president. He is not going to wait and drag his feet on these issues," she said. "And I think it tells you a great deal about his style of leadership."

She said that none of her husband's positions were the result of political calculation, and that if anything, Mr. Edwards was the one candidate among the front-runners whose political positions reflected his life's work.

"This is not something we came to recently. And what's more -- it is the story, unlike, I think, every candidate except Dennis Kucinich -- this is actually the story of his life," she said. "This is not a coat you put on for the campaign. This is something inside him."

"This is who I am," Mr. Edwards added. "I would do this if I weren't running for president."

This article first appeared in the New York Observer and is reprinted with permission.


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