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The New (Old) Rule Book

Edwards at a fundraiser in June. (AP).

If anyone needed evidence that John Edwards doesn't intend to play by the rules in this campaign, his decision Thursday to play by the rules should settle the question. If that sounds confusing, read on.

Edwards surprisingly opted back into the public financing system for the presidential nomination battle -- a choice, in essence, to embrace the (old) rules for raising and spending money in the primaries and caucuses.

That public financing system, which sets limits on spending in return for federal matching funds, was breached first by George W. Bush in 2000 and then by Bush, Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004. All chose not to take matching funds. As a result, big money overwhelmed a system that had been created to keep the financial playing field relatively level.

The changes over the past two election cycles established a new paradigm for presidential campaigns, one that will hound Edwards as he seeks the Democratic nomination. That paradigm asserts that anyone who stays within the system of public financing has committed political suicide if they managed to win the nomination. Therefore, accepting matching funds is seen not as a public-spirited act but an admission of political weakness.

That belief is well grounded, based on what has happened in recently elections. Winning the nomination usually exhausts most of the money a candidate is legally allowed to spend many months before the national conventions, when nominees receive a check from the government for the general election. Bob Dole was short on cash in the spring and summer of 1996 and Al Gore was even more desperate for money in 2000.

For Edwards -- or anyone else who opts to accept federal matching funds -- that means running a campaign from March through August on a few million dollars, while their likely general election opponent is free to raise and spend as much as he or she can. Unless the opponent is John McCain, who seems likely to accept federal funds as well.

The decision by Edwards is based on several assumptions inside his campaign. One is that Hillary Clinton is his only real opponent for the nomination. His advisers no longer believe that Barack Obama is a significant obstacle and they say taking public financing is all about making a clean argument labeling Clinton as the candidate of big money, special interests and the inside-Washington way of doing business.

The Edwards camp is now convinced that Obama has met an insurmountable obstacle on the issue of experience. The Obama campaign obviously believes otherwise, but at this point the Edwards campaign's focus is totally on Clinton, despite the fact that Obama is ahead of Edwards just about everywhere but Iowa.

A second assumption is that the campaign will be won or lost in the first four states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Despite the prodigious amounts of money Clinton and Obama are raising, Edwards's advisers argue that, with the help of matching funds, the former North Carolina senator will have enough to compete adequately in those states. Perhaps.

His rivals scoff at that assertion. Clinton and Obama could spend $15 million to $20 million in Iowa alone. Edwards will be limited to about $1.5 million (although there are plenty of loopholes in the law that legally allow actual spending to be much higher). Edwards believes that the power of message trumps the value of money -- and he can point to the experience of four years ago when he ran well ahead of Dean in Iowa despite being heavily outspent.

Edwards is counting on a blitz through the early states -- victory in Iowa (where he is stronger than in any other state), a finish in New Hampshire solid enough to sustain his momentum, victory in Nevada and victory in South Carolina. At that point, say his advisers, he will be seen as the giant killer, having bested the two celebrity candidates. While Clinton and Obama stockpile resources for a race that will go to Feb. 5 or even beyond, Edwards is counting on effectively bringing it to a end in the month of January.

The third assumption runs counter to the new paradigm. Edwards's advisers argue that whoever becomes the Democratic nominee will face a far different general election environment from that faced by John Kerry in 2004 -- one in which Republicans are disadvantaged.

They already see Republicans raising far less money than in past years -- less overall than the Democrats in this cycle by millions -- and say the Republican nominee will not have such a lopsided advantage as many may assume. They also say that nominee will be carrying the weight of Bush's presidency on his back and will start the general election on the defensive.

Edwards may face a hard sell as he seeks to persuade Democratic voters he has not foolishly handcuffed his campaign by taking federal funds. If he so believes in the system, why did he want until three days before the end of the third quarter -- a quarter in which he is likely to fall farther behind Clinton and Obama in money raised -- to make the announcement?

His advisers acknowledge that he will face an even more difficult challenge in overcoming doubts among Democrats desperate to win back the White House about his capacity to wage a serious campaign between March and September on a few million dollars.

Those advisers speak hopefully about the many new ways in which candidates communicate their messages other than costly television ads; they speak about the power of his message for change; they speak about the ability of the Democratic National Committee to sustain the nominee independently. Democratic voters still may be skeptical.

Edwards may be prepared to go even farther to try to draw Clinton into a debate about the most effective way to change the system. At a minimum, he believes that by abiding by spending limits and taking matching funds, he can force her to explain why, if she believes that public financing of campaigns is best, she is not willing to join him.

When Jerry Brown ran for president in 1992, he ran against the system and imposed a $100-limit on contributions to his campaign. That was seen as a gimmick more than a winning strategy. Edwards will have to show that what he did on Thursday is neither gimmick nor an admission of weakness.

When Edwards revealed his decision on Thursday, I was reminded of something he said during his announcement back in late December. It was that presidential campaigns could be used to effect change long before the candidate entered the Oval Office. More and more, Edwards is running his campaign as if guided by the now and not by the later.

Perhaps that is what has come from the impact of knowing that his wife, Elizabeth, has incurable cancer. Living too far in the future is no longer an option for either of them. If shaking up the system has become underlying motivation of his campaign, then there is no reason to wait to start the shaking.

--Dan Balz

By Washington Post editors  |  September 28, 2007; 12:34 PM ET
Categories:  A_Blog , Dan Balz's Take , John Edwards  
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Thank you for the informative article. I applaud John Edwards for going the path of public funding. In the past, I liked Hillary, but I believe that she has been exposed for the corporate-loving,centrist politician that she is. I have never seen John Edwards refuse to answer any question directed at him. This seems to be not the case with either Obama or Clinton. Now is not the time to give opinions that are deemed safe and politically neutral. Rather, now is the time to lay the cards on the table and speak from the heart about the issues that are so important to all of us. If you are a liberal, then act like it and do not pander to anyone. I, for one, will never appoligize for having liberal views and I don't think our candidates should either. The base of the democratic party is leaning left and John is clearly the best representative for all of us. If the mainstream media did their job correctly, they would report on other candidates besides Obama or Clinton. The media seems intent on just focusing on the front runners. If the average person only gets to hear what these 2 candidates have to say, then this is an injustice. To be a responsible voter, everyone really needs to take a good look at the candidate's stances on the issues. John Edwards will then be clearly looked at as the obvious nominee for the democrats.

Posted by: JPOWERS2 | September 30, 2007 7:01 AM | Report abuse

Edwards has to get first in Iowa or he's gone. For far too many of us, he's appeared to be too far to the left and unelectable against a Republican.

It's curious to see the Edwards campaign talk about Obama's experience or perceived lack of same. Edwards served one term in the Senate, and was Kerry's running mate period.

His real experience is in malpractice lawsuits and that should bother a lot of us. Hundreds of thousands or millions for slipping on a banana peel. Looking for one reason your health insurance premiums are so high? Look right to Edwards and his ilk.

Nice guy, sincere and Elizabeth is a treasure. I wish both of them well, but sorry, just can't see him as nor back him as President

Posted by: travelgallery | September 29, 2007 8:05 AM | Report abuse

The author says that taking public funding is a surprising decision by Edwards. What is surprising about it? It was his only option he hasthan withdrawing from the race.

Hs fundraising is lagging behind Clinton and Obama. He needs the matching funds to have the cash necessary to have any impact in the early states.

This is not a campaign from the present date until August as the author states. It is a campaign from the present date until mid-February. There is a good possibility that the nominee will be decided by then.

So anything that happens after that is irrelevant to Edwards because if he doesn't do well in the early states, he is toast. He does not have the staying power of Clinton or even Obama.

I don't know what the source is for the strategy for Edwards that the author cites but it seems to be substance induced. Edwards has cut staff in Nevada and is thirty points behind Clinton there. The last poll I saw showed him with seven percent and fourteen percent in South Carolina and New Hampshire respectively.

He polls poorly in all the key states mentioned in the article except for, of course, Iowa. Assuming he does win there, the Edwards team seems like they are expecting an Iowa win to perform miracles for his campaign.

This move is not rolling the dice, it is more like going all in, in poker when your chip stack cannot equal the blinds.

Posted by: danielhancock | September 29, 2007 12:54 AM | Report abuse

Jon Edwards is playing to his own strengths not the least of which is spending time on the campaign with real voters. That anybody can be critical of that is troubling. Edwards and McCain collectively are America's best hope at returning some legitimacy to the Oval Office. As for the Donkeys, Edwards has the one thing neither Clinton nor Obama have -- electability.

Posted by: thisdog | September 28, 2007 10:33 PM | Report abuse

Fair and inciteful look at the issue. Edwards has decided to demonstrate leadership throuhgout the campaign. That's a very refreshing way to run for President.

Posted by: sfmandrew | September 28, 2007 8:20 PM | Report abuse

This is sound reporting--an interesting, well-written article. I am glad to see the Post finally covering Edwards seriously.

Posted by: saturniidae | September 28, 2007 7:42 PM | Report abuse

Thanks Dan for an excellent and balanced article. I saw this well reasoned argument by another blogger about how and why Edwards can win with public financing:

"The republicans, mid-way through the 2004 cycle, found a loophole that allows the party to spend unlimited hard-money on behalf of the candidate, so long as the ad is on behalf of the entire party as well as the candidate. So that if Edwards becomes the nominee, the DNC can raise and spend unlimited hard money during the summer and fall, so long as the ads mention that he is a democrat, or that he's running against "republicans."

There's little doubt, in this cycle, that our nominee is going to run as a democrat and against republicans.

As for the state caps, thats also only on expenses by the campaign itself. IEs on his behalf don't count against the cap. Given that his strategy, under any circumstance, is going to rely heavily on support from allied groups, esp in his field effort. So its not necessarily going to hurt him as much there either.

As someone who has a hard time supporting even liberal democrats who don't make campaign finance a major issue, I'm actually glad to see him do this. I realize its out of necessity, but the recognition that without some public financing, we're going to have nothing but corporate Democratic candidates forever is an important part of his argument.

Since my small contributions, unlike the maxed-out donors that are powering Clinton, will be 100% matched, I'll give some more now."

I agree-- absolutely.

Posted by: marshamark | September 28, 2007 6:36 PM | Report abuse

By identifying that Clinton is the opponent and opting for public financing, Edwards is defining the debate; government for the people as opposed to government for the insiders.
It also frees him from the cold calls needed to raise money and allows him more actual face-time with voters, vitally important in Iowa and New Hampshire.
In the Iowa Caucus, with the jockeying that occurs within the individual
caucuses and the viability issue that determines who gets to be in the final tally (lesser candidates get eliminated), and the fact that Edwards will likely be the second choice of those caucus goers whose candidates get eliminated, and that could push him over the top there.
As far as the time between the primaries and convention, he could be in trouble with Republicans defining him, but with their negatives and the Democratic national party and Moveons of the world countering and slamming them, that should be managed reasonably well. Plus, as the pre-emptive nominee, free time would be available on a daily basis.
Is there a "second choice" poll out there in Iowa yet? I'd love to see that.

Posted by: capemh | September 28, 2007 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Dan Balz writes
"The Edwards camp is now convinced that Obama has met an insurmountable obstacle on the issue of experience. The Obama campaign obviously believes otherwise, but at this point the Edwards campaign's focus is totally on Clinton, despite the fact that Obama is ahead of Edwards just about everywhere but Iowa."

Interesting line of thinking. If the 'issue of experience' is an insurmountable obstacle for Sen Obama, how is it any less surmountable for former Sen Edwards? How does one Senate term, concurrent with a losing run for the Vice Presidency, trump 2/3 of a Senate term with aditional years in State Govt?

I don't get it. If experience is what counts for the nomination, the Dems would go for Richardson, Biden, Dodd, Kucinich or Gravel.

Posted by: bsimon | September 28, 2007 4:53 PM | Report abuse

John can get his money from where ever it doesn't matter any more, there isn't enough money anywhere to buy back his integrity after the debate. I've been an Edwards supporter for years, but he lost my support with that "can't get the troops out until 2013" line. That is vision, leadership? It took a couple of weeks to march into Iraq and to take Bagdad, and it doesn't take one minute longer to leave. I am sad to say it after all the breath I've wasted touting John over the course of a decade, what an utter disappointment, so pointless.

Posted by: rob_forbis | September 28, 2007 4:23 PM | Report abuse

"His populism belongs in another era of American history..."

That's like saying democracy belongs in another era of American history.

I'm not saying you're wrong, smarty_pants; I'm just clarifying things.

Hopefully that other era of American history is the future.

Posted by: djmagaro | September 28, 2007 3:47 PM | Report abuse

The ONLY WAY this is going to work is by the miracle of the efforts of the people.

Personally, I feel Mr. Edwards could have made this statement of restricted campaign funding at a time when he had a better footing, such as his second term campaign.

There are too many lives at stake, our economy is at stake, our environment is at stake...

Posted by: theman_in_black | September 28, 2007 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Dan, I've criticized some of your reporting in the past so I have to say -- Great job on this piece. I hope we see more stories like this. Hell after reading this piece I can hardly wait to see what happens next with Edwards.

I've always been an Edwards supporter but I must say I've been very impressed lately with the way Edwards has conducted his campaign. He is introducing new ideas and detailed plans that have been very interesting. The MTV event we watched yesterday really gave him the opportunity to shine because he was able to give more than soundbite responses. I wish that there were more townhall type events on the schedule so that the voters could really see these candiates in action.

Posted by: pmorlan1 | September 28, 2007 3:20 PM | Report abuse

cupgoddess, it's not so much Mr. Edwards turning his back on the big money machine as it is the big money machine turning its back on him. Do you really think if he had the ability to raise big money like Clinton and Obama that he would turn it down?

His populism belongs in another era of American history, and despite how weak the Republicans are right now, he's not an electable candidate. He may compete in Iowa, but likely won't win any other primaries.

Excellent piece, Balz.

Posted by: smarty_pants | September 28, 2007 2:53 PM | Report abuse

John Edwards has finally decided to roll the dice. He knows that in Hillary Clinton he faces a stacked deck, in money, in recognition, in a president cum first man. Edwards apparently has decided to play leapfrog, though Barack Obama is a formidable frog, and go after the lady who is steamrolling her way to the nomination. Edwards has a lot of ground to make up in order to catch Hillary Clinton. He hopes he made substantial headway in the Dartmouth debate. He hopes he can eke out a win over the rest of the field in Iowa. That together with as much of a bounce that he can muster in eight days will have to suffice for a victory try in the Granite State. It must be said that earlier this week an AP poll taken at the University of New Hampshire had Clinton at 43 per cent, Obama at twenty-something; Edwards at 12 and Richardson at six. Edwards has been mired in a distant third place slot in New Hampshire for months, and his supporters are hoping his strong showing at Dartmouth will move him up. The simple fact of the matter is, however, that Richardson is closer to Edwards than he is to Obama, while Hillary luxuriates on the New Hampshire peaks. Hillary's coy mistress act in the Dartmouth debate may well backfire. We will see. Clinton has made some mistakes earlier that have not cost her. We will see if the steamroller prevails.

Posted by: bigdave1 | September 28, 2007 2:49 PM | Report abuse

This is an excellent article. Dan Balz is consistently the best political reporter with a kind of fine "Dragnet" style of just the facts and great analysis in his pieces.

Posted by: rdklingus | September 28, 2007 2:35 PM | Report abuse

It's SO heartening to see a candidate turn his back on the big-money machine and run on his issues and qualifications! The political process has become so sullied by the need to drum up tons of cash. It's about time someone said no. Good job, Mr. Edwards!

Posted by: cupgoddess | September 28, 2007 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Balz, this is a stellar example of political reporting. Thank you.

Posted by: zukermand | September 28, 2007 2:08 PM | Report abuse

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