Campaign 2004: John Edwards
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MARGARET WARNER: For John Edwards, the handwriting was on the wall early last evening as Super Tuesday returns began coming in. At 8, before some states had even finished voting, Edwards spoke to his supporters in Atlanta.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We have been the little engine that could, and I am proud of what we’ve done together, you and I.
MARGARET WARNER: Edwards’ formal withdrawal came late today, before an overflow crowd of 1,500 in his hometown of Raleigh, N.C.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: It has been my greatest honor, though, to have walked with you because from the beginning, this has never been my campaign. This has been your campaign and I am blessed to have been a part of it. And I’m also blessed to be back here at Broughton High School with so many friends and family and members of my community.
I want to say a personal word about my friend John Kerry, who I know very well. This is a man that, from the time he served this country courageously in Vietnam, all the way through this campaign, I saw it, I know it. I saw what we went through in November and December and back in the summer when everyone said he didn’t have a chance. But he showed the strength, the resilience, the courage that he has shown his entire life when he fought for us and for our country in Vietnam. He’s done it throughout this campaign.
The truth of the matter is that John Kerry has what it takes right here to be president of the United States. And I for one intend to do everything in my power to make him the next president of the United States. And I ask you to join me in this cause for our country, for our America. (Applause)
MARGARET WARNER: Now, we look at John Edwards’ rise and fall and for that we’re joined by two political reporters, this time from the Edwards beat. Mark Johnson of the Charlotte Observer started covering Edwards when he announced in January of last year. And Mitch Frank of Time magazine traveled with him throughout this year. Welcome to you both.
John Edwards also had quite a roller coaster ride, Mark Johnson. Last year at one point he was the hot prospect. Then he was a very dim one. Tell us about that.
MARK JOHNSON: Absolutely right. He came into the race off of this sort of the rising star of the party. There were glowing magazine articles about him. Then he spent the first half of last year raising money and kind of dipped off the radar screen. And when the latter part of the year came around, when he actually was campaigning, they could not get any traction.
The poll numbers did not go up, and there were some very dark hours in November and December when folks inside and outside the campaign really wondered, you know, whether this was possible. And a month later, there we were in Iowa, and in the last days or hours before the caucus, suddenly shoots from the bottom of the pack up to No. 2. And the ups and downs just followed from there.
MARGARET WARNER: Mitch, at the end of the first quarter of last year, in fact, John Edwards has raised more money than Howard Dean or John Kerry. What is your sense about why when the fall came he was just nowhere on the radar screen?
MITCH FRANK: Well, you’re right, Margaret, in the fact that the money he raised in that quarter kind of bolted him to the front of pack. People were calling him the next Bill Clinton. What happened really is the issues changed.
The aftermath of the war in Iraq really focused the Democratic Party on Howard Dean. Dean was the most stridently antiwar candidate and that brought him a lot of attention. Edwards voted for the resolution for the war in the Senate. He stood by that vote, unlike John Kerry, and that brought him kind of a lot of negative attention, kind of sank him down to the middle of the pack. It wasn’t until the final two weeks in Iowa that he really started to reconnect with voters.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Mark, was that when it started to turn around? I saw him in Iowa in November and the crowds were sparse and he didn’t seem to connect. By mid-January they had more people than could fit in a room. What turned it around for him that you saw?
MARK JOHNSON: Several factors working in his favor and first of all you had the Dean implosion. Dean, who had sucked all the oxygen out of the room was moving out of the way. Voters who had become disenchanted with him started shopping around. So at that same time, as they start to look around, what Edwards needed was for them to just give him a look. When they took a look at him, he was able to connect.
He is by far the best stump speaker in the group. When the folks would tune in, he was able to close the deal for them. After Iowa, he was able to hang in there for New Hampshire and very quickly move on to a victory in South Carolina.
MARGARET WARNER: But Mitch, he came out of Iowa with this incredible boost, the surprising second place, as everyone called it, which probably wasn’t surprising to you having covered him and watching what was happening. But I think to a lot of America it was. He ends up fourth in New Hampshire. What happened there?
MITCH FRANK: It was a huge disappointment. At one point the press van for the campaign in New Hampshire hit a moose that was kind of an analogy for the whole campaign in New Hampshire. All that momentum that he had in Iowa just evaporated, really with just a week between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary.
He didn’t have that chance that he had in Iowa two connect with voters one-on-one on the stump. Another big part of it was Howard Dean again. The media was focusing all the attention on Kerry for suddenly vaulting in the first place in Iowa, and Dean for suddenly imploding in Iowa. And there wasn’t any coverage left over for the second place guy.
MARGARET WARNER: Not to mention the relentless coverage of the Dean scream which seemed to be on television that entire week.
MITCH FRANK: Sure.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, all right, let’s go to… he goes on to South Carolina, but there are a lot of other contests going on that day. He wins just one. What do his folks think happened that day? At that point they must have had a strategy. Did they still think they could win this thing? And if so, what happened or what didn’t happen that they thought would happen?
MARK JOHNSON: Right. That’s probably the pivotal night. He wins South Carolina and comes oh, so close in Oklahoma and there’s the one point people sort of question about the campaign is what if he had gone back to Oklahoma one more time? What if he had made one more swing through there? He could have won Oklahoma.
MARGARET WARNER: He loses it to Wes Clark.
MARK JOHNSON: He would have gotten rid of Wesley Clark. Would have had two victories. And would have built up momentum. Instead he has the one victory, his home state, which somebody said, if you can’t win your home state, you’re al gore. And he moves on and doesn’t have the momentum he really needs to catch up with Kerry, who the same night that Edwards wins one state, Kerry is winning five.
MARGARET WARNER: Mitch, what was he like privately during these ups and downs, particularly post the South Carolina but not winning anything else, as it really started to sink for him?
MITCH FRANK: Well, the amazing thing about Edwards is that he was probably the only candidate this entire campaign who never changed his strategy as Howard Dean rose up in the fall, all these other candidates were kind of shifting their message, focusing more on the war, going more negative on the president.
Edwards at one point in December had this soul searching meeting with his staff saying should we change tactics? Should we go harsher on the other candidates? He said you know, my optimistic message is what has carried me so far. I’m not going to change who I am. But unfortunately after South Carolina when he didn’t win Oklahoma and Wes Clark stayed in the race which probably cost Edwards Tennessee and Virginia, there was too much ground to make up on Kerry.
He really kept sticking to that message, but he never did anything aggressive to kind of distinguish himself from Kerry until it was too late. At one point the campaign staff started telling all of us, look, we don’t have to win Virginia and Tennessee. We said if you can’t win in the South, how are you going to beat Kerry? They said we expect the media scrutiny to take Kerry down for us.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark, very quickly. Do you think this relentlessly upbeat message was a strategic decision on Edwards’ part or is that who he really is?
MARK JOHNSON: Probably both. Definitely a strategic decision. That’s one thing about the campaign. They stuck with their plan all the way through. You can look at Dean, you can look at Clark, you can find mistakes throughout the campaign where they said something wrong or steered their campaign the wrong course. You can’t find that with the Edwards campaign. You don’t find the glaring error. They really stuck to the plan they had. If not for some circumstances, it could have worked out better.
MARGARET WARNER: Mark Johnson and Mitch Frank, thank you both.
JIM LEHRER: Again to Mark Shields and David Brooks, this time for Edwards thoughts. What did Edwards accomplish by running for president?
MARK SHIELDS: John Edwards, first of all, Jim, in my judgment elevated politics and made his listeners feel it was more important than in the past, in terms of not simply comforting the comfortable but John Edwards reminded all of us that we had responsibilities to each other, especially to those who were poor and those whose skin color was different from our own.
The other thing is he kept this race positive. It may have been his greatest strength and at the same time his greatest weakness. In a time when voters really were cynical, skeptical about major institutions, John Edwards captured that mood, but he brought to it an optimism which I think propelled him in the final analyses, prevented him from drawing stark and dramatic differences between himself and John Kerry.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, David?
DAVID BROOKS: That he is a serious person. His problem was lack of policy depth. Clinton had star quality but had policy departments. There is no issue that John Edwards would die for or go to the mat for. If Dick Gephardt were sitting here at the table, he would talk to you about trade. He believed trade was an important issue.
John Edwards never had a speech like that. His speech today was policy free. He didn’t take the opportunity to promote a policy he had belief in with the depth of his heart. And I think that was the shallowness of the campaign. It was fantastic to watch. It was like a cruise romance, fun and exciting but lacked a certain depth because of the policy challenge.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think the positive nature of it was real?
DAVID BROOKS: That was real. But you can’t be president of the world’s most powerful nation on the basis that you ran a positive campaign. You have to know what you want to do in the White House. He did talk about the poor but even his discussion of the poor, does of lobbyists when you actually say what are you going to do about all this? His policy was extremely shallow and in some way, backward looking and obsolete.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t agree with that, Jim. I think John Edwards deserves enormous credit for raising issues that have not been raised in the past four years. We can argue back and forth about whether or not somebody has a better chance of being virtuous on a full stomach with a paycheck and a job, or being virtuous and then getting a full stomach and a paycheck — which comes first. And I think John Edwards identified what the anxiety people are going through. He captured the mood of this country.
This country has to understand that in the past four years, it has lost all its confidence in every major institution from the church to the corporations to the accounting firms, with the exception of the United States military. The press, you name it, and John Edwards understood that and I think spoke to it far better than any other national figure.