John Edwards still speaks with a honeyed Southern cadence, but he’s showing sharper elbows and a willingness to jab at opponents in his travels through Iowa in pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination.
Looking out at a raucous crowd of union carpenters at a weekend rally, the former senator from North Carolina sounded his tough populist line: American government has become corrupt, and he is the one Democratic candidate who can fix it. “Nothing will change if we trade a crowd of corporate Republicans for a crowd of corporate Democrats,” he said.
That crowd clearly includes New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
When Edwards first ran for president in 2004, he told Iowans that if they were looking for a candidate who would attack fellow Democrats, “I’m not your guy.” But in a series of recent appearances in Iowa, Edwards peppered his speeches with barbs about his primary competitors, particularly front-runner Clinton.
Iowans embraced Edwards in the 2004 race, pushing him to a second-place finish in the caucuses that helped him land the nomination for vice president. Now, most analysts agree that Edwards must win Iowa’s caucuses on Jan. 3 to have a shot at the 2008 nomination
Some voters are welcoming his tactics, saying candidates need to differentiate themselves. But others wonder whether Iowa voters will align themselves with a candidate who attacks his rivals.
Iowa “voters are very sophisticated,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), who has not decided whom he plans to endorse. Speaking at his “Bruce, Blues and Barbecue” fundraiser in Dubuque after Edwards spoke, he said, “They are looking for a candidate who’s going to inspire and motivate them, not win by taking down another candidate.”
Steve Larson, an assistant precinct captain in Polk County and an Edwards supporter, said he was growing increasingly frustrated by the rising negativity among the Democratic candidates.
“It turns neighbor against neighbor,” said the 51-year-old Des Moines resident. “I don’t like to see it.”
Edwards was once the front-runner in Iowa polls, but now, outspent and out-staffed, he has fallen behind Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama in recent polls, though he remains within striking distance
To win over undecided voters, Edwards is pressing his rural roots, growing up in the “mill village” of Robbins, N.C., where his father had to borrow $50 to get him out of the hospital after he was born.
“You’re looking at the Democrat who grew up in rural America,” he told hundreds of family farmers at an Iowa Farmers Union luncheon in Des Moines. “I don’t need to read about it in a book. I don’t need to have someone explain it to me.”
His competitors see Iowa “as a place you fly over when you’re going from New York to California,” he said.
Edwards’ sharpest words are aimed at Clinton.
He slammed her for voting to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization, which some fear is a precursor to military action; for accepting donations from lobbyists; and for planting a question about global warming at a recent campaign event.
“That’s what George Bush does,” Edwards said. “George Bush goes to events that are staged, where people are screened, where people are allowed to ask questions that are screened. . . . That’s not the way democracy works.”
He describes Clinton as entrenched in a system that is broken.
“We have very different views,” he told about 50 people at Blend, a restaurant in Cedar Rapids. “Sen. Clinton believes the system is OK. . . . The corruption and all of it will be OK.”
Edwards less frequently criticizes Obama.
“Obama, to his credit, believes you bring everyone together, you negotiate and you get things done,” he said. “I don’t. I believe it’s a fight, an epic fight.”
His supporters said that Edwards was pointing out policy differences, not attacking other candidates’ character. Nearly every time Edwards criticized Clinton, he prefaced his remarks by saying she was entitled to her views.
“He’s actually been fairly kind about it,” said John Whiston, 59, after a stump speech at the Eagles Lodge in Iowa City.
The sharper rhetoric helped Edwards win an endorsement last week from Iowans for Sensible Priorities, a group that wants to cut Pentagon spending and claims it has 10,000 voters pledged to support its preferred candidate.
“Frankly, his emphasis on the influence of special interests, the corrupting influence on Washington, is really key when it comes to this issue,” said Peggy Huppert, the group’s executive director.
Huppert said Edwards’ positions hadn’t changed since four years ago, but his campaigning style had become more urgent and focused.
“It’s out of necessity,” she said. “Obama and Clinton have sucked the oxygen out of air.”
Voter Andrew Peterson, 50, said he found Edwards’ vigor refreshing. The Cedar Rapids resident supported Howard Dean in 2004, and at the time found Edwards “insincere.”
“Last go-round, I just didn’t believe him,” he said after the Cedar Rapids event. “Now, he just seems very direct.”
Barb Kilburg, 56, of Durango is undecided, but leaning toward Clinton. Though impressed by Edwards’ performance in Dubuque, she said criticism of other candidates was unnecessary.
“I don’t hear Hillary attacking anyone other than Bush,” she said. Her competitors “are not dealing with the issues. All they want to do is make someone else look bad, and that will make them look good.”
Ruth Lux, an undecided voter from Lidderdale, said she was deciding between Edwards, Clinton and Obama.
“They have to stake out their differences,” she said. “They can’t go around and act like there’s no difference. Why vote for them?”
After hearing Edwards speak at the Swan Lake Conservation Center in Carroll, the 59-year-old said she was impressed.
“He sounds good, sounds like the vision of America I believe in. I really am leaning toward him,” she said. “Whether that lasts for two months, I don’t know.”