At a Democratic forum Saturday night, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards had the chance to ask any candidate a question. But he did not seize the opportunity to challenge national front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, as he has consistently done in recent months.
Nor did Edwards challenge Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who has surged past him in Iowa. Instead, Edwards chose to ask Obama whether he would join him in pledging to raise the minimum wage.
Edwards’ role as the positive populist in the Democratic field has returned at a moment when the political stakes could not be higher. In the final month before the Iowa caucuses, the Edwards campaign has decided to refrain from the aggressive strategy that defined its message for months.
The daily rhetorical sparring between Obama and Clinton has only made the Edwards campaign more confident that the best tactic to distinguish its candidate is to rise above the intraparty bout, which Edwards was largely instigating as recently as mid-November.
The media focus on the two leaders, despite polls indicating Iowa remains a three-way race, has also led the Edwards campaign to believe that it is now vital to offer a positive message to encourage voters not only to vote against Obama and Clinton but to vote for Edwards.
The tactical shift away from the combative rhetoric is also rooted in the campaign’s belief that the time to earn political benefit from criticizing Clinton may have passed.
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“Iowans don’t really care for bruising politics,” said Rob Tully, the chairman of Edwards’ Iowa campaign. “If there was an impression that John was too tough earlier, he does not want to leave that taste in people’s mouth.”
Back in mid-November, it was rare to attend an event where Edwards did not challenge Clinton for “double-talk” on the issues or paint her as a “corporate Democrat” beholden to Big Business.
“The person who has raised the most money from Washington lobbyists is not a Republican; it’s a Democrat,” he liked to say, finally stating Clinton’s name as the politician with the support of the powerful.
“It does not work to replace corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats,” he always added.
But soon Edwards began to catch flack for the criticism. At a mid-November Las Vegas debate, Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd said, “I am surprised at just how angry John has become,” adding that “this is not the same John Edwards I once knew.”
Recent events have now provided the opportunity for Edwards to be the same candidate Iowa once knew. The campaign is fresh off the endorsement of Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley, who hails from the more liberal eastern Iowa and was heavily courted by all the Democratic camps.
Edwards’ strategists also now feel that Clinton’s perception of inevitability has dwindled — meaning they no longer need to risk the optimistic view of their candidate in order to bring Clinton down to earth.
“Hillary Clinton was out there sort of trying to run above it all, talking about how she was ready to lead, ready for change,” said Edwards’ chief strategist Joe Trippi. “But a couple of weeks ago, she did what no one else could do. She went out in the debate and said four different things on the driver’s license issue.
Her campaign then got tangled up for planting questions.
“And it looked like more of the same. So there was no reason to continue to point out the issue,” Trippi added.
The Edwards camp also believes that as Clinton and Obama spar, they will inevitably garner local press coverage that focuses on the leaders “going negative.” Edwards’ Iowa staffershope that a significant portion of Democrats may sour on both candidates’ tactics and turn toward Edwards as the viable alternative.
That strategy worked four years ago. In 2004, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean and Rep. Richard Gephardt traded blows in the last weeks of the primary campaign. The bout contributed, in part, to the decline of both candidates by caucus night.
It was Edwards and Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry who benefited from Dean’s and Gephardt’s decline. Edwards is hoping history can repeat itself.
By the Edwards campaign’s own estimate, he must win Iowa to stay viable in the race.
Both Obama and Clinton have far more money to survive a loss on caucus night. Yet Edwards has the most widely rooted organization in the state. He competes with both leaders in the number of paid staff in Iowa. But Obama and Clinton are rapidly swarming the state with staff to smother challengers.
Ironically, the Edwards campaign now welcomes a characterization of the contest it has long protested — as a two-person race — in order to add more momentum to a possible win.
“Frankly, the more everybody talks about how the race is between Obama and Clinton, the better it is for us,” Trippi said. “We intend to upset that. And if we do, it’s more powerful momentum if we beat these two giants who have spent millions more on Iowa television.”