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Few Voters Committing to Edwards

Presidential hopeful and his populist message play well with Iowa Democrats -- but not well enough yet.

October 28, 2003|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

PARKERSBURG, Iowa — From Dubuque along the placid Mississippi River to browning cornfields in the west, presidential candidate John Edwards spent most of the last week spinning through Iowa in a gold minivan, charming Democrats gathered in living rooms, diners and basement meeting halls.

They laughed at his joke about greedy pharmaceutical companies, lapped up his tale of growing up poor in the South and cheered his excoriation of President Bush -- "walking around that ranch in Texas with that big belt buckle, acting like he is for regular people."

Over and over again, in a dozen stops in the state with the first key test of presidential preferences, Iowans said they really liked Edwards, the U.S. senator from North Carolina. But most also said they weren't ready to commit to him in caucuses that will be held around the state Jan. 19.

"I'm looking for a candidate who has the best chance of beating Bush," Nick Lucy, a retired phone company worker and military veteran, said after meeting Edwards at a Dubuque home that overlooked the Mississippi. "His challenge is he is one of the younger ones. I'd consider him. But I'm really looking at [Massachusetts Sen. John F.] Kerry, because he is a veteran too."

The reactions were symptomatic of the problem plaguing Edwards' candidacy not only in Iowa but in New Hampshire, which conducts its crucial primary on Jan. 27. He receives high marks for his message and its presentation. But so far, such favorable reactions have translated into little steadfast support. Analysts speculate that the first-term senator simply remains too much of an unknown to most voters. And some suggest he may best be suited for the second spot on the Democratic ticket.

The question that now dogs the Edwards campaign is whether he can recapture the buzz that surrounded his candidacy when he ended the first quarter of this year as the top fund-raiser among the Democratic candidates.

That was more than six months ago and -- as Edwards comes to Los Angeles Wednesday for a tour of African American churches and a fund-raiser hosted by actor Ashton Kutcher at the home of actor Dennis Hopper -- he is struggling to gain some momentum before a series of primaries in early February that include a virtual must-win contest for him in South Carolina.

Signaling his commitment to his candidacy, Edwards has sworn off a Senate reelection bid next year. His campaign also has advertised extensively on television in Iowa and New Hampshire. Yet he languishes in the middle of the pack -- far from the lead -- in recent polls in both states.

A key reason for skepticism about Edwards' chances is that his campaign has fallen off its early fund-raising pace. He collected only $2.6 million in the third quarter of the year, compared to the more than $7 million he raised in the first quarter.

The linchpin of Edwards' strategy is a victory in South Carolina, which is shaping up as the most closely watched of seven primaries and caucuses on Feb. 3. But a lack of money and poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire could frustrate his hopes.

Analysts looking for an explanation said Edwards had yet to be identified by voters with the kind of persona or single issue that have helped his top rivals: former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the antiwar crusader with the maverick, Internet-driven campaign; retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the decorated soldier and NATO leader; Kerry, the Vietnam War hero; and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, known for his pro-union stances and House leadership position. If Edwards has been stuck with a label, it has often been "young and untested."

Hastings Wyman, author of the Southern Political Report, said Edwards had been hurt by "his relative inexperience and the fact he brings nothing to the table that plenty of others in the race don't."

Edwards' campaign staff has seen how well the public responds to its candidate, however, and believes he stands poised to make a strong enough showing to keep his White House hopes alive. That likely means passing Kerry by to make at least a third-place finish in Iowa, said Larry Sabato, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Edwards is staking his presidential aspirations on a populist appeal tailored to the middle class and poor. On nearly every issue and question posed to him last week, he returned to a broader message: that his upbringing as the son of a textile millworker made him ideally suited to understand the travails of everyday working people.

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