Election 2008

Edwards Bets on Iowa to Beat Clinton, Obama

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While Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are drawing cameras and crowds for their presidential bids, former vice-presidential nominee John Edwards is also keeping a packed campaign schedule. Edwards is a familiar face in the living rooms, union halls, and colleges of Iowa.

Unidentified Man: We want Edwards. We want Edwards. We want Edwards. We want Edwards.


They are cheering for former Senator John Edwards. He's one of the other Democrats running for president. Most of the spotlight is focused on Senators Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Meanwhile, Edwards has been busily campaigning in the early caucus state of Iowa. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: John Edwards never really stopped running in Iowa. He's been there 19 times since he lost his bid for the vice presidency in 2004. These days, he's playing to the state's deep tradition of retail politics, holding events in senior citizen's centers in union halls. And he's trying to distinguish himself by offering specific policies early in the campaign.

Last weekend he was pushing his detailed plan for universal health care. It would make businesses provide health care to employees or pay into an insurance fund. And he says it won't be cheap.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina; Former Senator): Now, here comes the medicine part. How much does it cost, right? My plan costs $90 to $120 billion a year. I pay for it by rolling back George Bush's tax cuts for the richest people in America. That's how I pay for it.

GONYEA: Iowans say Edwards has grown as a candidate since he first appeared here four years ago. Rick Mullen(ph) is a Democratic Party activist in Sioux City.

Mr. RICK MULLEN (Democratic Party Activist): The first time he came here, we were at someone's home and he had this wonderful prepared stump speech that he gave, you know, a 10 minute set piece, and then when people started asking questions about foreign policy or other things, he clearly didn't have an answer for it.

LANGFITT: But in fielding questions now, Edwards often gives clear, firm answers. Here's a response to controlling the federal deficit.

Sen. EDWARDS: Today's deficit is about two percent of GDP. When President Clinton, who you talked about, came into office, the deficit was about five percent of GDP. I do not believe you can achieve universal health care, energy transformation and doing the things, other things that need to be done in America and eliminate the deficit simultaneously. I don't think it can be done.

LANGFITT: Little seems to rattle him, and he seems at ease on the stump.

Sen. EDWARDS: Here's what I think. I think two things. One is, I would - are you going to take a picture while I'm answering the question?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. EDWARDS: You ask a question and when I'm answering the question, you take a picture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. EDWARDS: I love it, it's great. Welcome to Iowa.

LANGFITT: After the speech, I asked Rick Mullen, so what did you think?

Mr. MULLEN: You know, it's just amazing to watch him, how relaxed and loose he is at these things.

LANGFITT: Even Edwards acknowledged that he's changed after a speech in Council Bluffs.

Sen. EDWARDS: How am I different? I'm seasoned. I have more depth. I've been doing this longer. Like most people, I learn, I hope.

LANGFITT: But as Edwards has changed, so has the terrain. Stephen Schmidt teaches political science at Iowa State University. He says Edwards faces much stronger competition, and he's no longer the fresh face.

Mr. STEPHEN SCHMIDT (Iowa State University): There is a lot of excitement about Barack Obama, and a lot of women are very excited about Hillary Clinton, and I think that gives him a challenge, because he is neither Hillary Clinton nor a sort of new generation African-American or multicultural candidate, and that's perhaps a disadvantage for him, because the field is so exciting and electrifying.

LANGFITT: Many people responded well to Edwards last weekend, calling him warm and genuine, but not everyone liked his answers. When a college student complained about soaring tuition, Edwards cited a program he started in a poor community where people chipped in to help students pay for school. The college student, Justin Levine(ph), didn't like the response.

Mr. JUSTIN LEVINE (College Student): But I don't think he really gave me the answer I was looking for. I wasn't very impressed with what he had to say.

LANGFITT: Even some of Edwards's biggest fans admit he has an uphill battle. Theresa Wolf runs the Woodbury County Democratic Club in Sioux City. She says he needs to keep campaigning at a personal level in a state where the caucus is decided in people's living rooms.

Ms. THERESA WOLF (Woodbury County Democratic Club): It's hard. It's going to be very hard for him, and I just really think that he needs to get out there. He needs to talk to the people. He needs to keep it on the ground with the people who work the campaign. You can blog all you want. You have to bring it to the people, because that's who shows up on caucus night.

LANGFITT: And that night, the first test for Edwards in a growing field of Democrats is now 10 months away. Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

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