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John Edwards' Learning Curve

John Edwards at the Democratic debate Wednesday night. (Getty)

When John Edwards started his second campaign for president, he said the experience of having run for the White House in 2004 gave him one important advantage over others in the 2008 field.

"One thing that's changed about me is that I spent most of my time last time learning how to be a presidential candidate," he told me almost a year ago. "I didn't know how to do it. I woke up every day worrying about how to be a better candidate than I was yesterday."

What Edwards absorbed from his first campaign was on display Wednesday night at the Democratic debate at Dartmouth College. More than any of his rivals, Edwards came to the debate with a clear plan for differentiating himself from front-running Hillary Clinton. The result was a debate in which someone other than Clinton turned in the best performance.

The art of multi-candidate debates is knowing what you need to accomplish and finding opportunities to make that happen. Clinton's goal on Wednesday was to deflect as much as possible the anticipated attacks from her rivals. She managed that through careful and sometimes evasive answers, through calculated laughter whenever the questioning cut too close, and through the command and expertise she has displayed in the past.

For Edwards, the goal was to force Democratic voters who may be uneasy with the prospect of Clinton as their nominee to think of him more than Barack Obama as the principal alternative, as well as raising doubts about Clinton herself.

He began somewhat delicately, when moderator Tim Russert asked all the candidates if they would pledge to have all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of their first term in January 2013. Edwards, Clinton and Obama all declined to make that promise.

But Edwards still found a way to draw a contrast with Clinton, arguing that she was prepared to keep U.S. troops in combat indefinitely. He said that, even if some residual forces were needed, he would prohibit their involvement in combat operations. It was a small difference but one designed to make Clinton unpopular with the party's antiwar constituency.

He was far more direct in criticizing Clinton over a Senate vote on Wednesday on a resolution urging President Bush to label the Iranian Revolution Guard a terrorist organization. Clinton supported the measure (in contrast to rivals Joe Biden and Chris Dodd) and Edwards took her to task by looping back to her support for the 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq.

Edwards also voted for that resolution, but has renounced it in a way Clinton steadfastly has refused to do. He was caustic in asserting that he and Clinton had learned "a very different lesson" from that experience. "What I learned in my vote on Iraq," he said, "was you cannot give this president the authority and you can't even give him the first step in that authority because he cannot be trusted."

Edwards learned another valuable lesson from his 2004 experience, which is not to allow the conventional wisdom of the moment to overwhelm your candidacy. Time and again in the fall of 2003 he was counted out. He started as the bright, fresh hope for the party, then saw Howard Dean roar past him (and everyone else) on the strength of the antiwar movement. He languished in single digits in the polls so long that it appeared he had little chance of becoming a factor in the race.

Then when it counted, he came alive--with help from an endorsement by the Des Moines Register shortly before the Iowa caucuses. He was moving so quickly in the final days of the Iowa campaign that Kerry's team feared he might overtake them and win.

So Edwards has a healthy appreciation for what counts and what doesn't in the sound and fury of the 24/7 news cycle and the constant chatter and instant analysis of the web and cable news. His advisers believe Obama has obstacles that he will never be able to overcome -- principally the question of whether he has the right experience to be president -- and are therefore confident that by the middle of January, the Democratic race will be a two-way contest with Clinton.

Before the race gets to that point, Edwards may face his own time of testing. He was grilled Wednesday by Russert about his involvement with a hedge fund that has been involved in foreclosures against some New Orleans residents. He stood his ground, but the experience is one that may unsettle Democratic voters.

His detractors also question whether he is driven by more than a desire to be president. His positions have moved left over the past four years, on the war, on health care and on other issues. Can he retain the kind of support he has enjoyed in a state like Iowa among moderate male voters with a platform that is increasingly pitched to the left?

Finally, while he remains well positioned in Iowa, his prospects in New Hampshire are far less bright. His advisers believe that, if he wins Iowa, he can survive with a second-place finish in New Hampshire. They confidently predict he can wrap up the nomination in January by becoming the giant killer in Iowa and riding that altered dynamic to victory.

Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns strongly disagree with the assessment inside the Edwards campaign, and there are good reasons to be skeptical about how the Raleigh-based team has sketched out the future. Even some Democrats who were once partial to Edwards question the decisions that he, his wife Elizabeth and their team have made this year.

This bothers Edwards not at all. The confidence gained from running and losing in 2004 has permeated his 2008 campaign. Now he must persuade Democratic voters to put their confidence in him.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 27, 2007; 12:36 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take  
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