Edwards Earns Second Look

Posted January 20, 2004 at 6:27pm

HAMPTON, N.H. — Sen. John Edwards came to this town 35 miles east of Manchester on Tuesday morning touting the “politics of the possible,” a message his presidential campaign believes was primarily responsible for his surprise second-place finish in Monday’s Iowa caucuses.

“Cynics didn’t build America, optimists built America,” the North Carolina Democrat told an audience gathered at Winnacunnet High School. Looking no worse for wear after a late-night flight, Edwards spoke to a group of more than 400 onlookers, a mix of ardent loyalists, voters still on the fence and students just happy to be excused from their second-period classes.

And, throughout the day, people attending Edwards’ events cited his refusal to run negative ads or attack the other candidates through the mailbox in Iowa as his most attractive trait.

“He didn’t get into a fight with the other candidates,” said Lea Downer, a Hampton resident who attended the forum and is still debating whether to back Edwards or Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). “I’d rather hear something constructive rather than destructive.”

Although Edwards barely mentioned his strong showing in Iowa while delivering his stump speech, his aides made it clear that he was attempting to take advantage of the momentum gained in Iowa, where he finished at 32 percent, 6 points behind Kerry but well in front of the perceived frontrunners in the Hawkeye State, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt.

In fact, Edwards has already reached out to supporters of Gephardt, who officially dropped out of the race Tuesday afternoon in a speech to supporters in St. Louis.

“We do have a hope that people who supported Gephardt will support us,” said Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri. “John and Dick share similar upbringings and similar values.”

Steve Elmendorf, a senior adviser to the now-defunct Gephardt campaign, said that of the candidates still in contention in New Hampshire, Edwards appears to need the Gephardt supporters most, though he was unaware of any effort to transfer either supporters or staff wholesale to Edwards.

“Edwards needs to find some people quick,” Elmendorf said. “Finishing second [in Iowa], he is now a phenomenon and needs to capitalize on it.”

The North Carolina Senator hoped to do just that with two fundraisers last night — one in Boston and one in New York City — and an event this morning in Greenville, S.C. Edwards also picked up the backing of New Hampshire House Democratic Leader Peter Burling on Tuesday.

Palmieri rejected the idea that Edwards — currently in fourth place behind Dean, Kerry and retired Gen. Wesley Clark — might give the Granite State a cursory treatment, choosing instead to focus its time and resources on South Carolina’s Feb. 3 primary.

“We are running a national campaign,” Palmieri said. “The only discussion [about bypassing New Hampshire] came when we were laughing about the reporters who were suggesting it.”

The crowds at both the Hampton event and a noon rally at the Manchester Public Library — attended by Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, and state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro — showed that Edwards is clearly getting a second look from many voters after his performance in Iowa.

Catherine Cavanaugh, a Manchester resident who attended the library event, admitted it was unlikely she would have come had Edwards not done so well Monday.

“It was so surprising,” she said of Edwards’ showing. “I had always thought of him as a second-tier candidate.”

For Edwards, statements such as Cavanaugh’s may finally erase the idea that, as a first-term Senator who had never before held elected office, he was too green to be taken seriously as a candidate.

At his Manchester rally, Edwards addressed that perception, noting that when he first said he wanted to be a lawyer, he was scoffed at because no one in his family had ever graduated from college.

Later, as a lawyer he faced off against attorneys for “big insurance companies” and won. And, even when he ran for Senate in 1998, no one believed he could defeat the “Jesse Helms machine” in his race against incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth.

“Now I’m the senior Senator from North Carolina, not Jesse Helms,” Edwards said to resounding applause.

Despite the excitement Edwards is generating, the task before him in New Hampshire is daunting.

Both Dean and Kerry have a geographic base in New Hampshire, while the decisions by Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) to skip Iowa allowed them to spend significant time in the state.

Although polls currently show Dean as the frontrunner, Kerry is clearly the other candidate with significant momentum in the state.

Dubbing himself “Comeback Kerry,” the Massachusetts Senator arrived in New Hampshire early Tuesday morning. He was greeted at the airport by his campaign chairwoman, former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Kerry largely stayed out of the public eye for the remainder of the day, although he did hold one of his trademark chili feeds in Pembroke on Tuesday evening.

Dean held a series of events in and around New Hampshire aimed at assuaging voter fears that his disappointing showing in Iowa meant his candidacy had run into serious problems.

Seeking to downplay expectations, Palmieri said the campaign “doesn’t expect some miracle performance” in New Hampshire but emphasized that unlike Clark and Lieberman, when Edwards was mired in the single digits in Iowa he chose to stick it out.

When asked whether the Edwards camp anticipated a surge of support off their performance in Iowa, D’Allesandro demurred.

“We expect that [Edwards] will stay on message,” he said. “We are hopeful it will produce the results we need.”