Edwards Condemns NAFTA, Discounts Celebrity Campaigners
CONCORD, N.H. -- As his main rivals for the Democratic nomination are wielding the big names today -- Oprah Winfrey for Barack Obama and Bill and Chelsea Clinton for Hillary -- John Edwards is trying to make a virtue of his lack of star power. He focused his day on an aggressively un-flashy subject, the 14th anniversary of the passage of NAFTA, condemning the deal as a "particularly clear example of... big corporate powers getting exactly what they want in Washington, at the cost of over a million American jobs and incredible damage to the middle class in this country."
Along the way, he took a swipe at Hillary Clinton for her attempts to distance herself on the campaign trail from the trade deal signed by her husband in 1993.
The Clintons "were the movers behind NAFTA along with big corporate America. My view is that NAFTA's been a disaster for America and has cost us over a million jobs," Edwards said to reporters after a town hall meeting here with voters. "She'll have to carry that burden herself in trying to convince people that now she's changed her view."
Asked about the absence of any A-list celebrities at his side this weekend, Edwards noted that he's had some boldface names with him during the campaign, including Bonnie Raitt. "Most people vote on the basis of candidates themselves," he said. "I don't think that is a crtical part of what's happening. People take this very seriously. I don't think they decide who to vote for based on what movie star is for you." But asked whether Obama's events with Oprah amounted to a "stunt," Edwards demurred. "Any presidential candidate has the right to bring somebody out who's supporting them to try to help attract a crowd," he said.
His remarks about Clinton and NAFTA aside, Edwards has in recent days notably dialed down his criticisms of her in his stump speeches. But his appeal remains as firey as ever in its basic anti-corporate populism. Speaking to a couple hundred voters packed into a conference center function room here, Edwards compared the current political and economic climate to the Gilded Age and said it was time for a new Franklin Roosevelt to renew the "soul of America."
"The notion that we're going to sit at a table and negotiate with oil companies and drug companies and insurance companies, that they're going to voluntarily give their power away... right. That is a complete fantasy," he said. "We have an epic fight in front of us. The only way they're going to give away their power is that we're going to have it to take it from them."
One question facing Edwards is whether this message will resonate well outside Iowa, where the Democratic caucus electorate is solidly working and middle-class and where he remains close in the polls with Obama and Clinton. In New Hampshire, the Democratic primary electorate trends more upscale, with many of the liberal, highly-educated professionals who Bill Bradley appealed to eight years ago and who Obama hopes to do well with this time around.
One Edwards supporter at the Concord event, local Democratic activist Jon Bresler, surveyed the crowd and said it seemed to be more blue-collar than the voters Edwards drew in the primary four years ago, suggesting that there is an audience in New Hampshire for his populist appeal. "There's not a person in there with a shirt that cost more than $12," Bresler said. "They're here for health care, for education, for getting out of Iraq. This is blue-collar New Hampshire, and they're responding to his message."
Audience member Normandie Blake, the editor of a group of small community newspapers, said the appeal sold her on Edwards. "I'm really impressed," she said. "This country is going downhill, and the rich are getting richer."
But Lee Birak, a retiree financial planner, said that as much as he liked Edwards' plans and priorities, he was not sure whether it made sense for Edwards to be so forceful in his condemnations of corporate America. If Edwards did get elected, Birak asked, how could he get anything accomplished with that rhetoric?
"He's turning it a little into a class struggle, and I don't know if that's too polarizing. You can say that corporations control the government, but you can't say that you're not going to work with them, because that's not realistic," said Birak, 59. "If he's confronting us with a class struggle, how is going to bring business and Republicans and the middle class together, how's he doing to do all that if he defines the lines so sharply, if it's us against them. He's got to bring them to the table, and if you slam them too hard they're not going to show up at the party."
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