At first glance, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) seems like the perfect presidential candidate for Democrats: He's handsome, smart and southern, and he's a man with a compelling personal story. But go beyond the media's surface fascination with him and you'll find an inexperienced pol who isn't well-known -- and may not even be re-elected in 2004.
Edwards, who defeated Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) in 1998 with 51 percent of the vote, has done a masterful job of courting party leaders and the media since coming to Washington almost four years ago. In his first weeks in office, he became one of six senators to interview witnesses in the impeachment trial of then-President Bill Clinton. His political action committee, the New American Optimists PAC, has raised millions of dollars, and he's been a frequent visitor to early primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire. He was Al Gore's second choice as a running mate two years ago. The 49-year-old freshman has also been the subject of fluffy profiles in such magazines as New York and Elle. People labeled him the nation's sexiest politician, and Edwards was a guest on Comedy Central's The Daily Show last month.
Unlike Gore, Edwards has an appealing personality. He's also a new face to a public not eager to see a George W. Bush-Al Gore rematch. His is a rags-to-riches story: His father worked in textile mills for 36 years, his mother held odd jobs and he's the first person in his family to go to college. Edwards earned his law degree, then reaped millions as a personal-injury lawyer. And he's free of the personal problems that marred another southern politician with whom he has grown close -- Bill Clinton. Edwards and his wife have been married happily since 1977 and had four children. (The eldest, Wade, died in 1996 in an automobile accident.) He's articulate and charming. In short, he's a good ol' boy, complete with a strong southern twang.
In recent weeks, Edwards has even started to sound like a presidential candidate. He's laid out a likely platform for his candidacy by making speeches on foreign affairs, the economy and education. And he'll travel to Europe in early December to talk about Iraq with U.S. allies. (A member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence who voted for the Iraq resolution, Edwards is eager to bolster his foreign-policy experience).
But Edwards has stumbled in ways both big and small. In February, he told a group of California Democrats, "Like many of you, I grew up in a little town in North Carolina." He was less than dazzling in a Meet the Press appearance earlier this year. He called congressional candidate Katrina Swett "Christina" and suggested that Granite State voters elect Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) to the Senate so she could join other Democrats in rolling back President Bush's tax cut. (They didn't.)
It doesn't help that he's barely known outside of top political circles there. When The Charlotte Observer showed his picture to 12 random New Hampshirites in Manchester last month, not one could identify him. The news isn't any better in the rest of the country: A Time/CNN poll this month showed that 72 percent of voters weren't familiar with him, and only 2 percent of those polled would vote for him as a Democratic presidential nominee (versus 36 percent for Gore). Add to that the fact that no sitting senator has won the White House since John F. Kennedy in 1960.
In his home state of North Carolina, he's likely to be outshined by his colleague in the Senate, Republican Elizabeth Dole. Tarheel voters aren't exactly clamoring for an Edwards White House bid, either. An Elon College poll in September found that 31 percent of voters backed an Edwards presidential run -- exactly the same percentage that opposed it. A Mason-Dixon poll that month was even more damaging: 35 percent of respondents said Edwards should run for president while 44 percent said he shouldn't. A Research 2000 poll in July found that Bush would beat Edwards by 18 points in his own state; the Mason-Dixon poll put the spread at 27 points.
Perhaps most troubling of all for Edwards is that he may not even make it back to Capitol Hill in 2005. His Senate seat has switched parties the last five elections. A Mason-Dixon poll in October showed that 43 percent of voters would re-elect Edwards but that 35 percent want to replace him -- not exactly confidence-building numbers. His state isn't exactly a Democratic stronghold, either: Bush won it with 56 percent of the vote in 2000, meaning that Edwards could have a hard time with Bush at the top of the GOP ticket in 2004. And while Edwards' PAC raised $5.5 million, 80 percent of that was the soft money banned by law after Nov. 5, making it harder for him to earn goodwill from candidates whose support he'll need.
There's another problem for Edwards. Looking at his Senate Web site, you wouldn't even know he's a Democrat. His biography calls him an "independent voice for North Carolina" and mentions his "bipartisan accomplishments." But Edwards' voice on the site isn't clear: He's a breed of centrist, NASCAR Democrat, although his motto -- "The People's Senator" -- smacks of populism. Yet if Democrats learned anything from this fall's election debacle, it should be that voters want more of a choice between their candidates, not a muddled middle ground. Edwards has said that Democrats need to offer alternatives to Bush's program, but veering toward the center makes that a tad more difficult.
In addition, he's only been in public office for four years. While that's the same amount of time that Bush had served as governor of Texas before running for president, W. wasn't exactly a stranger to politics or to the White House. And while Edwards has taken on such high-profile issues as the patients' bill of rights, he doesn't have the kitchen-table name recognition of some of the issues' other major advocates, such as Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). Add to that the fact that Edwards may lose his seat on the Senate Judiciary Committee (because the panel will have to accommodate more GOP members due to the Republican majority come January). That's a loss for someone who could get valuable media exposure as the committee takes up nominees.
When the history books on the 2004 campaign are written, Edwards may be the best example of a candidate who peaked too soon. Gore is getting plenty of attention now as he hawks the books on family that he wrote with wife Tipper; buzz is also starting to surround the likely candidacy of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). The hype about an Edwards candidacy from 2001 and earlier this year aren't amounting to much, though, as the serious nominating season begins. And since the media have already written their puff pieces on Edwards, the next time they focus their spotlight on him, the stories are likely to have a more neutral -- or even negative -- bent. That means when the public really starts paying attention to Edwards, it may not get such a perfect picture.
Mary Lynn F. Jones is senior editor of the Prospect.