Edwards Looks Beyond Iowa
Former Sen. John Edwards's (D-N.C.) decision to take to the airwaves in New Hampshire is the most tangible sign yet that his campaign is seeking to change the perception that he is pinning his presidential hopes primarily on Iowa.
Following Edwards's surprisingly strong second place showing in the 2004 caucuses, the idea has emerged that the candidate has all but lived in the state since then -- laying the groundwork for his next run for president. For the last few months, the Edwards campaign has sought to push back hard against that idea for fear that it sets up a situation where he must win in Iowa to be seen as having any chance at the nomination.
The new ad in New Hampshire is a case in point. In it, Edwards embraces a broad message of grassroots change. "The strength of America is not just in the Oval Office, the strength of America is in this room right now," says Edwards. "It's the American people." (An interesting sidenote: an image of Elizabeth Edwards is shown in the ad, a sign -- and not a terribly surprising one -- that she will continue to be front and center in the campaign.)
To be frank, the message is less important than the simple fact that Edwards is up on television (read: spending money) in New Hampshire. It sends a signal that New Hampshire is important to his chances and that he is planning -- at least initially -- to dedicate real resources to the state in 2008. Edwards has also spent more time in Nevada than either Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Barack Obama (Ill.) -- his two main rivals for the nomination.
The attempt to broaden his electoral palette beyond Iowa is likely the result of Edwards's experience in 2004 when he failed to capitalize on his stronger than expected showing in Iowa due to a lack of organization on the ground in New Hampshire. He placed fourth in the New Hampshire primary (with 12 percent) and even though he bounced back to win South Carolina he was never able to find that Iowa momentum again. During that same campaign, Edwards watched Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.), who made no secret that an Iowa win was essential to his chances, fizzle in the caucuses and drop out before New Hampshire.
So, is Edwards the Gephardt of this cycle? Or his campaign sustainable no matter the results of the Iowa caucuses?
His campaign makes a compelling case that the conventional wisdom is wrong; that he has not showered the state with any more or less attention that the other Democratic frontrunners and, as a result, should not be expected to win the caucuses.
According to figures provided by the campaigns, Edwards has spent 18 days in Iowa since announcing his candidacy on Dec. 27, while Obama has been in Iowa for 20 days since announcing in February; Clinton (D-N.Y.) has been in the Hawkeye State for 15 days since joining the race in January. (She and former President Bill Clinton have a four-day trip through the state planned next week.)
So, Edwards has dedicated no more time than any of the other top tier candidates to Iowa since this campaign began. But what about the two years between his losing vice presidential candidacy and the announcement of his 2008 bid you ask? According to his campaign, Edwards spent 25 total days in Iowa in 2005 and 2006.
Washingtonpost.com's "Campaign Tracker" generally backs up these numbers, counting 46 Edwards events in Iowa since the start of 2007 -- 14 more than he has held in New Hampshire. By contrast Obama has done 43 events in Iowa this year, while Clinton has appeared at 28 events.
But numbers don't always tell the whole story. Every neutral Democratic observer we spoke to said Edwards must finish in the top two in Iowa to have a legitimate shot at the nomination.
First, because he is battling two candidates in Obama and Clinton who are almost certain to outspend him in Iowa and beyond. If Obama or Clinton take an unexpected hit in one of the early voting states, they will have a financial fall back plan to keep them in the game. Edwards' campaign insists they will have the money that they need to run their campaign in the early states and we believe them. But, if the campaign extends beyond South Carolina, it's hard to see Edwards still in the financial game unless he uses a win or strong second in Iowa to slingshot him into the top two in New Hampshire.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, the perception exists in the political chattering class -- that group of media, strategists and hangers-on that spend unnatural amounts of time thinking and talking about the race -- that Iowa is his best and only chance to sling a pebble and fell one or both of the Democratic Goliaths. Criticize it if you will (and we know you will) by that group carries an weighty influence in setting expectations for the candidates.
Polling done in the state has reinforced that idea as almost every survey we've seen shows Edwards in either first or second place -- a testament to his continued popularity but also a sign of the expectations that popularity has foisted on his campaign.
As we've said often in this space, perception is EVERYTHING in modern American politics. The Edwards' campaign can argue until they are blue in the face that Iowa isn't make or break for them but in a field with two incredibly well-known and well-financed candidates, it's hard to imagine a win-scenario for Edwards that doesn't include a first or second place showing in Iowa.
Edwards' best chance at winning the top prize is to use his resources to cement his support in Iowa, which would ensure he'll remain a top contender all the way through the caucuses, while also trying to set some roots -- financial and organizational -- in New Hampshire. Polling in the state shows him regularly running behind Clinton and either slightly ahead or slightly behind Obama. That means Edwards can go either way in the state. Win Iowa and he catapults himself into contention; disappointment and his support likely goes elsewhere.
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