Edwards says he's the most electable, but . . .

Times Staff Writer

For many Democrats, the 2008 presidential campaign is a celebration of those who once only dreamed of gaining power, with "you go, girl" cheers for Hillary Rodham Clinton and black pride in Barack Obama.

But as the top two candidates tap the excitement among Democrats over the prospects of a female or black president, a difficult question is confronting the field's No. 3 contender, John Edwards: What is a white man to do?

Edwards' status as a Southern white male -- characteristics that helped propel Democrats Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to the White House -- has this year offered some limitations, to the frustration of his campaign.

"We can't make John black. We can't make him a woman," Edwards' wife, Elizabeth, told an interviewer in one moment of discontent this summer. "Those things get you a lot of press."

Now, as Edwards lays out the closing argument of his primary election campaign -- that he is the most electable candidate and the most able to help fellow Democrats in conservative states -- race and gender are forcing him to tread lightly.

Edwards' claims are sensitive, given that he is asserting that he has more appeal to voters nationwide than do the front-runners, a white woman and a black man.

"He may not be saying it, but he's putting the argument out there that white male rural voters won't vote for a black guy or a woman," Taylor Marsh, a Democratic blogger and radio talk-show host, said in an interview. Marsh also recently raised the race and gender questions in a blog posting about Edwards' electability claims.

Garnet Coleman, an African American state lawmaker from Texas, said that Edwards was sending a subtle message about the risks of nominating someone who would be vulnerable to racism and sexism among the broader electorate.

"He's trying to make sure that when Democrats make a selection, they realize that the world is not perfect and they have to consider the long haul," said Coleman, who has endorsed Edwards in part based on his electability in the South.

"He has to be diplomatic," Coleman added. "He doesn't want to make it seem like he believes that an African American or a woman couldn't govern the country. It'd be real easy for someone to come out and say he's being insensitive to women and African Americans."

Coming from Edwards, who has campaigned to the left of Obama and Clinton, the electability claim is particularly eye-catching because it seems to violate the traditional rule that the most-electable Democrats are centrists. Some also find it to be uncomfortably reminiscent of the coded language that was honed by the same Jesse Helms political machine that Edwards, a former senator, defeated in North Carolina.

Edwards' advisors reject any suggestion that the electability claim is a special appeal to white voters, or a statement that the nation would reject a woman or black man as president. Instead, they say, Edwards is claiming that he is less divisive than Clinton and more experienced than Obama.

And they argue that Edwards, thanks to his working-class roots in tiny Robbins, N.C., is more in tune with the culture of rural voters. Moreover, they say Edwards is pushing a populist agenda that wins in the South.

Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, an Edwards strategist who specializes in attracting rural voters, argues that New York Sen. Clinton would bring "toxic coattails" and doom lower-level Democratic candidates in conservative areas. "It's not about women. It's about that woman," he said.

Speaking in Los Angeles on Friday, Edwards chided those who might argue that electability stems from strong fundraising and Washington connections. "I think the most-electable candidate is the one with the best ideas who can go to every corner of America and tell the truth about how badly Washington is broken," he said.

In recent days, Edwards has argued that his candidacy could help Democrats win a "supermajority" in Congress, thanks to an ability to campaign in so-called red states that he demonstrated with his 1998 victory in North Carolina.

"I know what you have to do to win in battleground states, and to win in tough, tough congressional districts, and what you have to do to put out your message that works in those kind of places," he told NBC's "Meet the Press," adding later: "I am the strongest candidate on the Democratic side in these battleground areas."

A preview of the electability argument came earlier this month with a campaign stop in conservative, rural Columbus, Ky., where he drew a crowd four times the size of the town's population of 229.

Edwards recalled feeling like a "hick in the big city" when he left home to attend college, and he told those in the crowd that he could relate to their struggles.

"You will never have a voice unless and until the Democrats have a candidate who understands your lives -- the Democrats have a candidate who will campaign everywhere in America, who won't give up on your part of America," Edwards said. He said his campaign "will not be limited to New York and Los Angeles and Chicago."

The crowd that day was overwhelmingly white, as were those last week when Edwards led a tour of rural Western Iowa designed to showcase his small-town appeal.

Campaign aides acknowledge that the claim to be the most electable in the general election -- a routine argument from candidates trying to win a party nomination -- carries an overlay of sensitivities concerning race and gender.

"The Clinton people talk about her strength with women, and Obama has talked about how there would be record African American turnout if he were the candidate," said Harrison Hickman, Edwards' pollster. "So, is race a factor? Is gender a factor? Yes, probably all the way around. Each of the candidates does seem to do better than the others among some racial or sex groups."

Clinton has embraced women's talk shows such as "The View" and declared: "If you want a winner . . . I'm your girl." Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, has written about his mixed-race heritage and says his candidacy stands "on the shoulders" of the civil-rights movement.

Ben Jones, a former Georgia congressman who played the character Cooter in television's "The Dukes of Hazzard" and spent last week campaigning for Edwards in Iowa, expressed frustration that as he sees it, some Democrats are more interested in making history than in winning the general election.

"Political correctness is the bane of the Democratic Party," he said in an interview. "Let's pick the best candidate that can be elected, rather than picking a nominee who just makes everyone feel good."

Campaign strategists said they did not intend to limit the electability argument to rural white regions. Edwards addressed it on Friday in Los Angeles at a meeting of the state's Service Employees International Union, a heavily black and Latino organization that has endorsed the former senator.

Edwards, who launched his presidential campaign with a speech from the heavily black 9th Ward of New Orleans, devastated during Hurricane Katrina, often goes out of his way to squelch any impression that he might be catering to racist or sexist voters. "Anybody who's considering not voting for Sen. Obama because he's black or for Sen. Clinton because she's a woman, I don't want their vote," he said during a CNN/YouTube debate in July.

Some dismiss Edwards' claim that he is the most electable. In hypothetical general election matchups, a new Quinnipiac University study found both Clinton and Edwards outpolling GOP front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani in Ohio. But in Florida, only Clinton was ahead of Giuliani.

peter.wallsten@latimes.com

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