Democratic Third Man

WASHINGTON — The dynamic performance by John Edwards in last Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate, assailing his competitors for the nomination, got high marks from political reporters, Republican politicians and left-wing activists. But not from the Democratic establishment. Once their great hope for the future, Edwards now is massively unpopular among party regulars who neither like nor trust him.

Performances at the Goffstown, N.H., event by the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were error-free if a little leaden. Edwards, third man in the big presidential field, supplied the fireworks by taking on both Clinton and Obama. On the surface, he seems a perfect candidate: eloquent, smart, handsome and shrewd. Is he reminiscent of the two slick Southerners who have been the only Democrats elected president in 40 years? Yet, the prospect of an Edwards-led ticket evokes the deepest apprehension inside the party as another flawed presidential nominee.

His nomination is not that remote a possibility. For decades, the Democratic Party’s leaders have exerted little impact on the making of a president, with decisions ceded to primary election voters. Edwards is staking everything on the Iowa caucuses, where he periodically leads the state’s polls. If he wins there to begin the delegate selection process, he could be unstoppable (as John Kerry was after winning Iowa).

Even though Edwards may end up as the party’s nominee, prominent Democrats are surprisingly candid about him. Mark Siegel, a party insider for 35 years, told me: "He came to Washington as a ‘New Democrat,’ but he’s not that kind of Democrat anymore. He’s into class warfare."

Edwards has not worn well with party colleagues. Campaign consultant Bob Shrum was enthusiastic about Edwards after working on his 1998 Senate victory in North Carolina and unsuccessfully advised Gore to make him his 2000 running mate. But Shrum chose Kerry over Edwards as his 2004 presidential client. In his newly published memoir, "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner," Shrum explains: "I was coming to believe he wasn’t ready; he was a Clinton who hadn’t read the books."

During the 2004 primaries, Democratic activist James Carville was enchanted when Edwards shifted his centrist posture to a populist depiction of  "Two Americas." Carville told me — and then repeated it on CNN — that Edwards was the best stump speaker he ever had seen. When I asked him this week after the New Hampshire debate whether he still felt that way about Edwards, Carville replied: "Maybe he’s not as good now."

In fact, Edwards’s populist rhetoric sounds about the same today as it did three years ago. The big change is his performance away from the podium. Seldom has a presidential candidate undergone Edwards’s 2007 trifecta — reports of the $400 haircut, the $50,000 honorarium from University of California at Davis for a speech on poverty and the $500,000 hedge fund salary — without his campaign imploding.

Such mishaps appear to be of Edwards’s own making rather than accidental, as was indicated after the New Hampshire debate. Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth, entered the spin room after the Sunday night debate and took issue with passages in Shrum’s memoir. She claimed Shrum misquoted her husband as saying of gays during his 1998 campaign, "I’m not comfortable around those people." At that same time, an Edwards aide attacked Shrum’s honesty. Answering a book’s account of a 9-year-old encounter is not a good approach for a presidential candidate.

A politically accident-prone Edwards also has cooled the ardor for him in the labor movement, where an endorsement from the Change to Win coalition led by Andrew Stern and James P. Hoffa now is far less likely than it was last December. Hoffa is reported to still regard Edwards as the most pro-labor presidential candidate, but he now doubts whether Edwards can be nominated.

So Edwards must rely on true believers who will brave the bitter Iowa cold in the dark of night to attend caucuses. That’s the kind of voter impressed by Edwards lashing out at Obama and especially Clinton on the war. Iowa Democrats in 2004 pulled back from catastrophe at the eleventh hour and abandoned Howard Dean when they contemplated the impact. Party leaders hope Iowans will take a similarly hard look at John Edwards.