SOMEWHERE ON THE ROAD IN IOWA -- Like the other presidential candidates, John Edwards is heading home for a few days over Christmas, which means we embedded journalists can do the same. Before taking off, here's an unscientific look at some first impressions:
1. DISCIPLINE, DISCIPLINE, DISCIPLINE - I'm a bit unhappy with John Edwards. I've been covering his campaign for 10 days and he hasn't made a lot of news. Let's face it – a lot of what political reporters report on is mistakes. The campaign trail is one long minefield, covered with Iowa cow pies, and when they step in one – we leap.
I've done very little leaping – and I blame Edwards. While other candidates misspeak, over-speak, and double-speak, Edwards (at least in these 10 days) has made so few mistakes that I end up being transported -- newsless -- from town to town like a sack of Iowa corn .
He has a remarkable ability to stay on message. Not just in "the speech," but even in Q and A. Nothing throws him off. He turns nearly every question into another opportunity to repeat his central theme. Global warming? We need to fight big oil. Health care? Fight the big drug and insurance companies. Iowa farmers' problems? Blame those monster farm conglomerates. And the Iowa populists eat it up. We'll see how well it works in other states.
He's even disciplined in his daily routine. While most reporters use the campaign trail as an excuse to over-eat and abandon their exercise routines, Edwards squeezes in a run EVERY DAY, rain, sleet, or shine.
Come on John – relax. Step in an Iowa cow pie and let me do my job.
2. JOHN AND ELIZABETH: TAG TEAM WRESTLING - The first time I saw Elizabeth Edwards get out of her chair, walk across the stage, and put her hand out for the microphone when her husband was in the middle of answering a question from the audience (and he happily gave it to her!) I was amazed. The next time, I was amused … and the time after that, and the time after that, and on and on. It's like tag team wrestling -- only, Elizabeth says, less choreographed. She jumps in primarily on health care questions, sharing her experience with incurable, but treatable, cancer. She told me her goal is to take what he says and "put it into language they'll understand in the carpool lane."
He occasionally feigns exasperation when she grabs the microphone, but he told me he loves it -- even when she tells the audience she doesn't entirely agree with him on an issue. After one of these joint appearances a group of women about Elizabeth's age told me they like him … but they LOVE her.
3. HE DREAMS BIG - Edwards has a serious idealistic streak. He envisions an America that is transformed, where the Washington agenda is controlled by the middle class, instead of the corporate powers and their lobbyists. He really seems to believe that if he's elected a tidal wave of middle class activism is going to swamp the powers-that-be.
In his stump speech, after going on and on about fighting the corporate powers that control Washington, he adds that he's not talking about getting into a big fight with politicians in Washington. No, he says, it's just those big corporate interests he wants to fight.
Pardon me, but PUH-LEEZE. Members of Congress will be lining up around the block to join those corporate interests, and to accept their PAC contributions. It's naïve at worst, and exceedingly idealistic at best, to think this "epic fight" as Edwards calls it, can be engaged without politicians turning it into an epic congressional slugfest.
4. FOR BETTER ... OR WORSE ... HE'S A TRIAL LAWYER - I now understand how Edwards did so well as a trial lawyer. In town after town, I watch as he mesmerizes audiences, gets them rolling with the rhythm of his riffs, surely the same way he persuaded juries of the righteousness of his positions. On the campaign trail they reward him with multiple standing ovations. In the jury room they rewarded him with mutiple millions.
But maybe it's that trial lawyer's ability to size up a jury and a case, and to find the appropriate tone, that's led to criticism that he does the same thing as a politician. A few weeks ago there was a spate of stories about how angry he seemed. Now, he seems to have re-calibrated his tone. He's still all about fighting the corporate powers. But now when he talks about fighting he sounds a bit more like a boxer about to enter the ring, and a bit less like an angry street fighter.
5. A SURPRISINGLY REGULAR GUY - I was expecting Edwards to be a bit distant and cocky. I've found him to be neither. It's a very subjective judgment, and maybe it'll change as I spend more time with the campaign, but he seems like a pretty regular guy. He's very accessible (holds a press availablity after nearly every event) , is very approachable, and has an easy-going sense of humor.
An example: before he spoke at a small community center in Nevada, Iowa a little while ago I bumped into him in the mens room. (I'm writing this on my Blackberry while hurtling down Iowa Route 30 to the next event.) He said "Hey, Chip! You having fun yet?" I told him it could be more fun -- that I was writing a blog complaining that he's not giving us enough material -- joking that I'd appreciate it if he'd go off-script and step in it now and then. He laughed loudly and promised "just wait, you just wait!"
I can only hope.