It was a campaign mob scene by California standards: 13 TV cameras and more than a dozen reporters gathered for the unveiling of John Edwards’ plan to regulate coal-burning power plants.
But when question time came, few cared much about clean technologies, or the “coal gasification process” that Edwards discussed as part of his proposal to fight global warming.
Instead, the Democratic presidential hopeful faced an unusual and extraordinarily personal grilling: Does he spend enough time with his children? Would his wife’s cancer take precedence over his official duties if he became president?
By his own admission, Edwards is tracing “uncharted territory” as he campaigns for the most powerful job in the world at the same time his wife, Elizabeth, wages a public battle for her life.
The promise and perils were quickly evident within the confines of a packed hotel conference room: More people than ever are paying attention to Edwards -- but they’re not necessarily interested in hearing his campaign positions.
The candidate and his wife have drawn an avalanche of publicity since announcing Thursday, in a joint appearance broadcast nationwide, that Elizabeth Edwards’ breast cancer had returned. There have been front-page headlines for days and a Sunday night appearance on “60 Minutes.” CNN even broadcast live Elizabeth Edwards’ stop Monday at the City Club of Cleveland, in what appears to be a first in the annals of presidential campaign coverage.
Therein lies opportunity.
Edwards has been running third or fourth in national opinion polls and far behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois in the coverage given the Democratic contestants. A new Gallup/USA Today poll showed Edwards’ support ticking up in recent days and Americans, by more than 2 to 1, supporting his decision to stay in the race. (More than a third, however, thought he may eventually have to quit the campaign.)
Edwards Internet fundraising also has spiked in recent days, growing by about 50% -- to more than $1.6 million -- on the pro-Democratic website ActBlue.
Perhaps most important, the sudden spotlight, even if shaded with a tinge of morbid curiosity, represents a chance for Edwards to pitch himself in a way that was impossible a week ago. Witness the scene Monday in San Francisco, a press turnout that would have been unthinkable if all he had to talk about were carbon dioxide emissions.
The sad circumstances -- and there is no calculation in Elizabeth Edwards’ diagnosis -- have served to soften the former North Carolina senator. His baggy eyes and drawn appearance speak to the personal toll of the last few days.
“Democrats have had a hard time convincing voters they’re just like them. We’ve had an elitism problem, an out-of-touch problem,” said Jenny Backus, a party communications strategist. “This announcement has humanized the Edwardses in a way that people can relate to.”
Yet there is a danger that Elizabeth’s cancer and the couple’s personal travails will become all-consuming, drowning out Edwards’ message and turning the focus away from issues that matter to voters -- and, more consequentially, upon which they will base their votes.
Edwards is clearly trying to avoid that. On “60 Minutes” he said: “There’s not a single person in America that should vote for me because Elizabeth has cancer.... Do not vote for us because you feel some sympathy or compassion for us. That would be an enormous mistake.”
In San Francisco, Edwards devoted his six-minute opening statement to global warming and clean-burning coal, and fielded questions on Iraq, nuclear power, immigration and healthcare, among other issues. But the subject that dominated coverage was Elizabeth’s cancer and her husband’s determination to keep running.
“I love my wife,” Edwards said at one point. “I miss her,” he said at another, when asked about campaigning apart. It’s always hard to balance family and campaign life, Edwards said, and that is likely to grow more difficult because of his wife’s illness. He talks multiple times a day to his children but never feels like he sees them enough.
Asked how, as president, he would balance his wife’s needs with those of the country, Edwards pledged he would always be there for her. “I promise you she would understand, at least as well as I do, that as president of the United States, you have a huge responsibility, and that responsibility requires you to be able to focus, to do the work, to get information that you need to make very serious decisions and judgments. And I am completely confident that I could do that.”
Although there have been ailing candidates and suffering spouses in the past, modern America has never seen anything quite like the Edwardses’ drama, with its private struggles played out in the political realm.
The closest parallel may be the death of Patrick Bouvier Kennedy, the 2-day-old son of President Kennedy who died in April 1963 while his parents lived in the White House. But those days -- long before the Internet, 24/7 news coverage and today’s open-book expectations -- seem so distant they may as well have taken place centuries ago.
For his part, Edwards appears as mystified by his unusual circumstances as anyone. “How it will affect the campaign probably depends on how America responds,” he said, facing the wall of TV cameras. “I don’t think it’s knowable.”
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.