Assessing a Two-Person Democratic Race

As John Edwards left the Democratic presidential race Wednesday, he said his rivals have promised to consider his core policy issues, including poverty. But how will the fight between Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton shape up?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now, former presidential candidate John Edwards has not endorsed either of his rivals for the Democratic nomination. Edwards ended his second run for the White House yesterday with the promise that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would press the issue that was central to his campaign.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): They have pledged to me that as president of the United States they will both make ending poverty and economic inequality central to their presidency. This is the cause of my life and I now have their commitment to engage in this cause.

MONTAGNE: Democrat John Edwards speaking yesterday in New Orleans.

Joining us now is NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Has this fundamentally different campaign in the one John Edwards run four years ago?

WILLIAMS: I think it was without a doubt a more strident, angrier campaign. And I think the reason here was, you know, in 2004, if you will recall, Renee, he gave a very good speech called "Two Americas" speeches in which he talked about the differences emerging in the country class-wise, rich and poor.

But this time, he literally started and ended his campaign, as we just heard, in New Orleans, and spoke about, repeatedly, the cause of his life speaking out for the poor Described himself as, repeatedly, as the son of a South Carolina mill worker. And as a result, there was a real stridency, a need to distinguish himself. And I think that became kind of the hallmark of this campaign.

MONTAGNE: While he was in the race, John Edwards often said he was at a disadvantage against Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. He called them celebrity candidates, and, of course, mentioned how many millions of dollars they had. But he was hardly an unknown.

WILLIAMS: He was not an unknown, having been a U.S. senator from south - from North Carolina. But, you know, one of the problems that he had in this campaign also stemmed from that, which was, of course, his vote to support going to the war in Iraq, his support for trade with China. Some of that he never could overcome, but that's what he was known for.

And then, of course, it also became an issue as he was going about - talking about poverty issues that people were able to point out he'd had that $400 hair cut; pointed out that he had given speeches for a great deal of money; worked for a hedge fund. All of that somehow came to confuse his message, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And Edwards, though, did have strong appeal to some voters - he did get votes. Where are they going to go now?

WILLIAMS: Well, there is a question about that. But if you think about where his votes came from, clearly, his support was with white males, especially working-class white males. He's - was winning votes - those votes. The question is, now, where all those votes go, as you say.

Now, he has been splitting the white vote with Hillary Clinton. And the question is whether or not you're going to see that vote naturally go towards Mrs. Clinton. But the thing is that Edwards really shared with Barack Obama, this issue about the need for change. Edwards, at one point, in one of the debates - that he and Obama had a deep belief in change, and that Edwards, according to Obama, was a voice for the working class and he wants to be that working-class voice.

So I think what you can see is that Obama, going forward, is going to try to pick up the populist theme. I think he's going to go do more in terms of the anti-war theme and make it very clear his - the distinction between Obama - distinction between himself and Mrs. Clinton on the war, although it's not great.

And then, for the Clinton side of the ticket, I think they're going to do more - much more emphasis on health care and expect that by picking up the health care theme, they can pick up some of Edwards' voters.

MONTAGNE: You know, it was a two-person race, so to speak, for some weeks now. But there seems to be no consensus over how Edwards' departure will actually affect the race for the nomination.

WILLIAMS: Well, when you get people head to head, I think that it drives a sense of exactly what is the contrast here, where are points of difference? And, of course, the irony, Renee, is that there is not a great deal of difference on policy issues if you look at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - on the war, on health care, on taxes - just not a great deal of difference.

But that now becomes a sharper point, and everybody looking for exactly some point of difference that would be to their advantage. And that's why I think you're going to see more strident language as they go one on one in a debate in California tonight.

MONTAGNE: Just one last question. Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama meet for the first time in a one-on-one debate here in California. What do you expect the mood to be?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think, initially, you know, that everybody wants to be nice and warm. But I think what they're, you know - if you think about the states they're appealing to, Clinton going after the big states - New York, California, New Jersey; Obama going after more middle of the country, Kansas -where he spoke this week about his relatives - and especially states where there are going to be caucuses. I think you're going to start to see again a little tougher approach to each other.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks. NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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