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Newsmaker: John Edwards

February 4, 2004 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Last night, Ray Suarez interviewed John Edwards just moments after his victory speech in South Carolina, but before his second-place finish in Oklahoma was known.

RAY SUAREZ: Senator, welcome to the program.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Thank you, glad to be with you.

RAY SUAREZ: The news looks very good from South Carolina, pretty good from Oklahoma. How do you read tonight’s results?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: It’s an incredible victory for us tonight. I think I always believed that South Carolina was a real test for whether you can win in the South, whether you can be appealing to African American voters, whether you can win in rural areas, all of which are critical to winning in South Carolina. And actually Oklahoma combines some of the elements, too, so I think it’s a big win.

RAY SUAREZ: The calendar presses. I mean, you have some things in a couple of days, another set of primaries a week from now. What’s next for your campaign?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Go back to work. Go back to work. I’ll go to Memphis, Tenn., tonight. I need to work in Michigan. I know we are doing a bus tour in Virginia. We’re going to be in Tennessee. The next set of primaries include those states. I just have to keep this momentum going. That’s the key for me.

RAY SUAREZ: Are the themes that worked here … I mean, this is a state with real economic problems.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Yes, it is.

RAY SUAREZ: Are they going to work in other parts of the country? Are people feeling as pressed in other places as they do here?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I think it will work everywhere. I think the truth is that most Americans believe there are two different Americas and that we have to find a way to have one public school system that works for everybody, one health care system, one tax system, one economy. And they know right now there is real division. We need to lift up those Americans who are struggling every day, which is what the theme of my campaign has been.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you have to win outside the South soon?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, I may win tomorrow, or tonight, outside the South. I was a very close second in Iowa, remember. Came out of nowhere to be a very close second, even though I was outspent by Senator Kerry four or five to one. I think honestly it is the message that’s working. People are desperate for some hope, not just rhetoric. I mean, they want some real ideas, especially ideas about how we change this country and make it work for everybody. I think that’s what they’re latching on to.

RAY SUAREZ: You don’t want that terrible label, “regional candidate.”

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: I think I’m already passed that. I went to Iowa in a very hotly contested race. Governor Dean was there, Congressman Gephardt who won in ’88 was there, Senator Kerry who outspent me by a dramatic amounts of money in Iowa, and I finished a very close second. So I think I’m past that already. I think I was competitive in New Hampshire. I came from 20 points behind Wesley Clark to a dead heat with Wesley Clark. Now I’m going to win South Carolina by double digits, and it looks like I’ll either win Oklahoma or be very close to the lead. So I think I’m past that already.

RAY SUAREZ: Unlike a lot of your colleagues in the race, you haven’t spent a lot of time talking about your opponents. As things progress, do you have to?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: No, I think my campaign is not about the other Democratic candidates. It’s about the American people, it’s about the voters. They desperately want us to hear their voices and address the problems that they face in their lives. If I get asked directly are there are differences between me and Senator Kerry, or are there differences between you and another candidate, I’ll answer those questions, I’ll be direct as I am about everything. But that’s not what is driving my campaign. It’s not what fuels it. My campaign is fueled by lifting up middle class Americans and 35 million Americans who are living in poverty.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, the other big winner from this primary round appears to be John Kerry. What is the difference between John Edwards and John Kerry?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, we … there are policy differences. It has been a big issue for me that we, not … that Washington lobbyists have too much influence. So I don’t take contributions from them. I think we should ban contributions from Washington lobbyists. We have different views on trade, we have different records on trade. I opposed NAFTA because I thought it would be devastating and it has turned out to be devastating. I’ve seen other trade agreements that don’t have environmental and labor protections that have had the same consequences. Senator Kerry has taken different positions. I think John Kerry is a good man, I do. He and I are friends. But we have substantive policy differences on how we look at the world.

RAY SUAREZ: So you have some caucuses coming up over the weekend. Are you well organized in Michigan and Washington state?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: We have in … I’ll start with Michigan. In Michigan, we have 20 African-American ministers in the Detroit area. I think of the largest churches in Detroit. We have people organized all over the state in precincts that the chairman of the AFL-CIO, the head of the AFL-CIO is a supporter of mine. So I think we have good support in Michigan. We’ve done a fair amount of campaigning in Washington. We have some grassroots support there. I haven’t spent as much time there as some of the other candidates have. Then we go to Tennessee and Virginia, places where I have long-term — long-time organizations, and I expect to do well.

RAY SUAREZ: Has the message evolved over time? Are there things you try out on the stump, things you see people responding to?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Of course.

RAY SUAREZ: That you throw in the basket. I mean, what’s working for you now?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: What works now are talking about two Americas as a frame, talking about bringing jobs, health care. What people … what tends to happen in these Democratic primaries is we talk about things as if they fit into a box. Jobs, health care, education, they don’t fit into a box. They’re all part of a bigger picture.

And that bigger picture is, at least in my mind, is the sea of change we’ve seen in both middle-class America and Americans who live in poverty and are slipping into poverty. And I think there has been an enormous change over the last 20 years. All those things contribute to it: Loss of jobs; loss of job security; no financial security, health care, obviously contributes to the problem. The difference in our two public school systems: One for more affluent communities, one or everybody else. But I think they’re all part of the bigger more comprehensive problem in America.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there things that you thought would be more central issues that just aren’t concerning voters much as you get to this point in the campaign?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, early on in the campaign, the war in Iraq was a huge issue. It is still an issue, and more importantly, I think what the biggest issue in the voters minds is now is, what are we going to do? I mean, what do we do … the American people tend to look forward, not backward. And so they’re thinking, what would you do as president in Iraq? What is your exit strategy? How would you internationalize the process? How do we release some of the burden on our troops? That’s still a big issue. They’re less focused on why we went there to begin with.

RAY SUAREZ: And that response to the daily news, could you see Iraq coming back later in this…

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: It depended on … it depends entirely on what happens, as you well know. This has an ebb and flow to it. And I think it’s clear you have to be ready to respond to whatever happens.

RAY SUAREZ: John Edwards, thanks for being with us.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Thanks for having me.