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Edwards Stings His Rivals, Smiling All the While

In the traditional role of running mate, the senator is growing more aggressive. But party loyalists ask if he's being used effectively.

September 19, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

RENO — The audience has assembled and Sen. John Edwards begins to make his case, starting with a rat-a-tat of statistics: 4 million Americans have slipped into poverty over the last four years; 5 million have lost their health insurance; 1.5 million jobs have vanished from the private sector.

The Democratic vice presidential candidate is speaking in front of the University of Nevada alumni center, a breeze ruffling his hair as the crowd of 4,000 stands before him on the grassy quad.

"Do you want a president of the United States, like this one, who's going to keep fighting for tax cuts for wealthy millionaires? Or do you want a president who'll actually fight for tax cuts for the middle class of this country?" he asks. "Do you want a president who's going to stand with Halliburton and the big oil companies of America? Or do you want a president who'll actually fight for the environment, and fight for energy independence for this country?"

In the Democratic primaries, Edwards was the candidate of sunshine, standing apart by shunning harsh attacks that marked the fight for the nomination. Once Sen. John F. Kerry picked the North Carolina senator as his running mate, the question was whether Edwards would take up the cudgel that vice presidential candidates normally carry -- making the sharp-edged remarks presidential nominees would rather not.

The answer seems to be evolving. Edwards grew more aggressive in recent weeks as momentum in the White House race shifted to President Bush and Kerry came under increasing fire, an assault often led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

"It's important for the country ... that we lay out what has happened over the last four years," Edwards said in an interview, discussing his change in tone.

He said voters initially looking at the Democratic ticket "wanted to know who we were, what we believed." Now, he added, the time has come "when we need to lay out a clear and dramatic contrast on what they've done and what we want to do for the country."

Hear Edwards these days on the campaign trail: Bush and Cheney will do and say anything to get reelected; the president thinks he is Ken Lay and America is his Enron; Cheney's suggestion that a Kerry presidency would invite a terrorist attack is "un-American," and Bush ought to say so.

Throughout all the tough words, Edwards' broad smile rarely leaves his face.

It is a gift, Kerry strategists say, to deliver a harsh message without seeming angry, and they are loath to squander Edwards' ability to do so -- even if it means fewer stories from a media entourage hungry for conflict. (Edwards' unvaried repetition of the same remarks day in, day out, also doesn't lend itself to widespread coverage.)

"He manages to get his point across without hitting people over the head with a hammer,'' said Jenny Backus, a Democratic media strategist. "That may not be a style that works in a short headline or a short sound bite on TV, but he's getting great coverage wherever he's going."

For now, that tends to be the smaller media markets and rural areas of the campaign's battleground states. The result has been a lot of positive stories in local media -- and also a perception among political observers that Edwards has been relegated to second-tier status in the campaign.

The Kerry camp disputed that notion.

"People inside the Beltway say he's disappeared for the last six weeks because all they've talked about is [the campaign] process for the last six weeks," said Nick Baldick, who managed Edwards' presidential bid and was now working for Kerry in Florida. "He's not a part of those stories.... He's out with voters, in the media markets that matter from Arizona to Wisconsin, talking about change," said Baldick.

But some party loyalists questioned whether Edwards -- who, they said, often made the case for Kerry better than Kerry himself -- was being put to the most effective use.

Diane Burnett, a 57-year-old campaign volunteer in Goodyear, Ariz., showed up for a recent Edwards appearance in Tucson with her daughter and daughter-in-law. They voiced support for Kerry, but gushed over Edwards.

"Love him," Burnett said. "Absolute appeal. Charisma."

"Kerry can be a little cold. John Edwards brings a more personal side to it for people who need it," said Jennifer Burnett, her daughter-in-law. "He should be out there as much as Dick Cheney, if not more."

"We need that now,'' said Lisa Carrier, her daughter. "That's what we want to hear. We need to hear the fight."

But Edwards suggested that partisans were different from the swing voters he and Kerry needed to capture the White House.

"I think that for most voters, the hottest rhetoric is not what they find most persuasive,'' he said in the interview. "What they find persuasive is a message that is true and compelling. I've spent a lot of my life convincing people about what's true and compelling, and think I have a real sense in my gut about what works."

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