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North Carolina's John Edwards: Will the best debater come in second?

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted January 13, 2003

When Senator John Edwards of North Carolina announced his candidacy for the Presidency recently, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, in reaction, made a crack about ambulance chasers.

I have some unsolicited advice for the White House in this regard: Knock it off.


Those of who come from lower middle class families know that Senator Edwards' pitch that he wants to represent "the little guy" has enormous appeal among some of the important swing voters in American politics.

What some Republicans view as a weakness of Edwards, namely that he had been a trial lawyer before his election to the Senate, is actually a strength. I don't know how many times I heard members of my family express the view that there was no one representing the little guy in Washington. These voters have an inferiority complex about themselves. They never think the politicians listen to them. Along now comes a very attractive, articulate Senator telling them that he will represent them. They will buy this big time.

If Bush is successful with his jobs creation legislation, then Edwards may not have the appeal to these lower middle class voters that he will have if unemployment continues to rise

I think Edwards has a good shot at the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. The man has Kennedy-like looks. He is an excellent debater. He can probably put the other candidates away, unless one of them manages to hitch on to a key constituency, such as labor unions, and can ride that group to the nomination.

But a great many Democrats believe that they need to have a Southerner on the ticket. Unless Florida Senator Bob Graham does intend to run, Edwards may end up as the only Southerner. Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Bill Clinton in 1992 and again in 1996 were all Southerners. They were all elected. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis all lost. True, Al Gore was supposedly a Southerner, but he was raised in Washington D.C. and he ran against the Governor of Texas, so these Democrats think their point is still valid. They point to the fact that Gore received a half million more votes than Bush.

Where Edwards is vulnerable is on issues. He is at four years out of six in his Senate career. The Bush people would be best advised not to attack Edwards for lack of experience either. By 2004, Edwards will have been in the Senate for six years. Bush had been Governor for six years by the time of the 2000 elections.

No, where Edwards can be attacked is on his views. His re-elect number is only 47 percent. He was first elected with 51 percent of the vote. So he has actually gone backwards since then. The reason is that his views don't exactly resonate with the voters who have just elected Elizabeth Dole to take the place of thirty-year Senate veteran Sen. Jesse Helms.

Edwards says he is going to lay out a vision for America. That vision can't resonate as well as the Bush agenda because in order to get the Democratic nomination for president you have to satisfy not only the unions but the radical feminists, the extreme environmentalists and the Blame America First crowd.

A serious debate between Edwards and his fellow Democrats might not get him the nomination, but being a smooth talking, good looking Southerner might do it.

Then a debate on the issues with Bush could be won by Bush, even though Edwards is the better debater. That is because Edwards will be hard pressed to satisfy the zoo in the Democratic Party and the American voters at the same time.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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