Though consistently in third place nationally behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the former North Carolina senator has had outsize influence on his opponents, staking out aggressive positions on issues from providing universal healthcare to rejecting contributions from lobbyists.
During an Iowa bus tour last week, with his wife, Elizabeth, at his side, Edwards sat down with U.S. News.
What is your plan for Iraq?
I would draw down 40,000 to 50,000 [troops] immediately. I'd take them largely out of the north and the south. I would begin a steady redeployment of combat troops out of Iraq so they were all out in nine or 10 months. I would say to [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki and the Shia-led government that we're leaving.
We're not going to leave immediately. We're going to be around. We're going to help you, but you need to reach a political compromise. I would send the secretary of state to talk with Iran and Syria and other countries in the region to get them engaged to help stabilize Iraq as America leaves.
The Iranians, the last thing they want are a million refugees coming across their border, and they also don't want a broader Middle East conflict between Shia and Sunni where they're in the minority. They have an incentive to help stabilize.
How would you mitigate the prospect of genocide if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq?
We have to have a plan, one, for containment, because this could spill outside the border of Iraq no matter what we do. And there are things to do. Set up buffer zones. Some have suggested moving people away from population centers.
I think we need to be preparing with the international community for the possibility of genocide. I think America dealing with this alone could be catastrophic.
How would you confront the significant issues with Pakistan?
[Gen. Pervez Musharraf] certainly has his problems, and he's president of a country [in which] there's a strong anti-American sentiment among the Pakistani people.
He's not exactly a beacon for democracy, and he's used a lot of iron-handed tactics to squash his adversaries. The recent debacle with the [Pakistani] Supreme Court is an example of that.
[Musharraf] has not done what needs to be done, particularly in the Northwest Territories with al Qaeda, and a lot of people believe [Osama] bin Laden may be there, too. We have huge leverage with Musharraf, but we always have to recognize that there's a tension between having a long-term plan and dealing with the short-term difficulties we face.
In the short term, we want to ratchet up pressure on Musharraf, and we have huge leverage because of all the aid that Pakistan receives from America. We ought to use that leverage and force him to aggressively go after al Qaeda. If I had actionable intelligence on where bin Laden was, I would go get him, wherever he was.
That doesn't necessarily of course mean a large-scale invasion. What it means is we'd use the tactical tools we have available to get bin Laden wherever he is.
How would you approach fighting terrorism and mending the country's international reputation through foreign policy?
I think that there have been serious structural problems with America's foreign policy over an extended period of time, and Bush has certainly been the worst by a long shot. But those deficiencies have been the lack of an underlying strategy to undermine the forces of terrorism.
Education, stopping the spread of HIV-AIDS, stopping the spread of disease, creating some hope in economi development in parts of the world where it doesn't exist. And I think it's fine for us to talk about keeping America safe, but [we should] also be willing to entertain a new vision for what's necessary to keep America safe.
Will the Republicans this election still be able to use national security as an effective issue against Democrats?
Not if we're strong and clear. Their idea of national security is the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq has not made us safer; it has made us less safe. And you're going to get years of war in Iraq with any of these Republican candidates.
The second thing, I will as president of the United States find bin Laden, al Qaeda, other terrorist organizations where they're operating and stop them using every tool that I have available as president. ...
Bush was a fearmonger, and he's been effectively fearmongering, he and Cheney, until they've completely lost their credibility. They no longer have any credibility. The Republican candidate will carry the mantle of George Bush.
The war in Iraq, on every other front, and they're going to carry that albatross around their neck in the general election. And I will hold them accountable for that.
Has your campaign moved, as some suggest, from an emotional appeal to Iowa voters that proved effective in 2004 to a more cerebral, issues-oriented approach?
I think it's the opposite. I think what you're seeing from me now is coming, all of it, from here [touches heart]. It is true that I have very specific, substantive policy proposals that caucusgoers insist on and they're right to insist on. That's true.
And that is a distinction from 2004. But when I talk about the outrage that I feel, there is nothing intellectual about that. It's very real.
What do you make of Iowa polls that for the first time are showing you not leading in Iowa, where you've staked your success?
I'm still ahead. Based [on own polling] and on what I see here on the ground, both.
But what matters is not who's ahead now. What matters is who's ahead in January.
I know from having been through this that I start from a very strong position, but you have to be able to maintain the belief that you are ready to be president and that you're the strongest candidate for the general election.
We know how to run in Iowa, and we know how to run in New Hampshire, because I've done it. I know what it takes.
Why would you make a better president than Senator Clinton or Senator Obama?
If you want change in this country, and you believe change is needed, it's very clear that I have a long history of taking on these entrenched interests and beating them. There's a difference in the way that I would achieve change versus Senator Obama.
Which is I don't believe you can compromise and negotiate your way to change. I think you have to stand up and fight. And you have to show strength because these people will not voluntarily give away their power.
Given your wife's cancer diagnosis, how do you balance hope and fear as you keep this grueling campaign schedule?
We have very clear experience and training in this area. You have hope until you have no choice, and that's exactly how we live our lives.
It's how we live our lives about this. And we have been through the experience, we've reached a place where hope is gone with the death of our son, and as long as hope is alive, and it is very much alive, in the case of Elizabeth's cancer--it's treatable, we're optimistic about it.
If elected, what legacy would you want to leave?
This is a president who made opportunity available to everybody. Period.
You are running on the theme of two Americas--the very rich, and the rest. How would you practically address the country's growing wealth disparity anaddress the deficit?
We are at the worst income and asset disparity, the worst economic disparity that we've had in America since the Great Depression.
My belief is if you want to reduce the deficit, the most important thing to do is to deal with the structural deficiencies in the American economy: dysfunctional healthcare system, addiction to oil, access to college, which has become increasingly difficult, and the general economic inequality that exists in this country.
If you address those, in a serious, comprehensive way, it will strengthen the middle class, grow the middle class, lift millions of people out of poverty and strengthen America's economy, and the deficit will be reduced.
Has it been more difficult than expected to be a wealthy candidate running on a have-have-nots theme?
It comes up because the people in the world who have an entrenched interest and don't want to hear this message on fairness, equality, trade, tax policy, healthcare, etc., they will assault anytime anybody challenges their interest. This will not stop.
This will continue. And they will use anything they have available to them. Anything. The bad news for them is they will never silence me no matter what they do.
By Liz Halloran