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Edwards Wraps Up Eight-State Poverty Tour

July 18, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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FORMER SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), Presidential Candidate: Tell me how you’re doing. Are you doing all right?

NEW ORLEANS RESIDENT: Oh, yeah, just fine.

JOHN EDWARDS: Now, where are you living now?

GWEN IFILL: John Edwards chose the Katrina-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to launch a three-day, eight-state tour on Sunday. His goal: to draw attention to the roughly 37 million Americans living in poverty.

Likening the tour to ones undertaken by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, Edwards traveled through Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. He ended the trip today in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, the same place Kennedy wound up nearly 40 years ago.

The former North Carolina senator has made poverty his signature issue, focusing on the expansion of health care coverage, educational opportunity, affordable housing, and the minimum wage.

JOHN EDWARDS: It will be a $7.25-an-hour, based on what Congress has done, but it ought to be at least $9.50 an hour.

GWEN IFILL: But in recent months, the Edwards campaign has spent more time off than on its anti-poverty message. The wealthy former trial lawyer was accused of hypocrisy when his campaign expense report was found to include a $400 haircut. And yesterday, Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, became the news by taking a few critical shots at Hillary Clinton, saying her husband would be a better advocate for women’s rights.

In national polling, John Edwards remains well behind both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the race for their party’s nomination. But he leads all rivals in Iowa, where the first votes will be cast next January.

Reasons for emphasizing poverty

Dennis Goldford
Drake University
There are certainly pockets of poverty and disadvantage in the country, but most people in the country do not think of themselves as poor and disadvantaged.

GWEN IFILL: Now, for a snapshot of where the John Edwards campaign stands, we are joined by: Dennis Goldford, professor of politics at Drake University and co-author of an upcoming book on the Iowa caucuses; and Roger Simon, chief political columnist for The Politico.

Roger, 75 percent of America is middle class, 13 percent are below the poverty line. What is the political gain for John Edwards in emphasizing this issue?

ROGER SIMON, Chief Political Columnist, The Politico: It's a risky one. One should never rule out the possibility that a presidential candidate supports something because he actually believes in it. And the notion that that might be true in Edwards' case is supported by the fact that it is so risky.

The votes in America, the money in America, true power in America is really in the middle classes, which is why most candidates support them. And when Edwards ran last cycle in 2004, he was a champion of the middle class. Now he's a champion of the lower classes.

And I think he believes that he can actually inspire Americans -- which they always say they want -- to sacrifice and to support a cause greater than their own self-interest.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Goldford, how does that play in Des Moines, in Iowa?

DENNIS GOLDFORD, Drake University: I think it plays pretty much the same way. When Senator Edwards ran in the last cycle in 2003 and 2004, he really talked in terms of opportunity and leveling the playing field, things that appeal to all Americans pretty much equally, and especially people in the middle class.

But he has again, as Roger Simon says, gone back this time to a theme that really the Democrats have focused on since the Great Society programs of the 1960s, where they become identified as the party of the poor and disadvantaged. There are certainly pockets of poverty and disadvantage in the country, but most people in the country do not think of themselves as poor and disadvantaged.

And so a lot of folks who would be normally a Democratic constituency over the past 40 years haven't thought the Democrats have been talking to them. And Senator Edwards seems to be wandering into that territory again.

Leading the polls in Iowa

Roger Simon
The Politico
They'll accept it as long as they believe the person understands them, cares about them, and is not a hypocrite, really wants to do good for them.

GWEN IFILL: But still, Professor, he seems to be leading the polls, at least for now, in Iowa. Why is that?

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Well, Iowa perhaps is a special case. He, in a way, never left Iowa after the last cycle. He's got a pretty good organization. He hasn't really run any ads yet, certainly here in central Iowa. The latest polls we've seen -- and they've been a while ago, the publicly released polls -- do show him with a few points lead over Senator Clinton and Senator Obama.

So Iowa is his chance to make his stand, and he'll have a great problem if he can't succeed here in Iowa, but he's got to make sure to focus more on this notion of opportunity for all rather than taking care about a small, though important, segment of the country.

GWEN IFILL: Roger, there have been three "h's" in this campaign, which have defined it: the haircut, the $400 haircut; the hedge fund that he worked for, for a while; and the house, the big, 28,000-square-foot home that he and his family own in North Carolina. Does that lead to a fourth h, hypocrisy? And how is that affecting his campaign?

ROGER SIMON: He wants it to lead to a fifth "h": hope, hope that people will just move beyond that. I mean, he's talked about all of them. The most troubling, of course, is the haircut. Not a lot of Americans have money in hedge funds, but we all know what a haircut is. And we all know that we don't pay $400. We all know that we don't charge them to our campaigns or our businesses, usually.

GWEN IFILL: But he has said it's a mistake.

ROGER SIMON: He said it was a mistake, and he repaid it. The Americans will accept very wealthy people running for president. Almost all of the people who run for president these days are millionaires, and he's a multimillionaire. They'll accept it as long as they believe the person understands them, cares about them, and is not a hypocrite, really wants to do good for them.

So John Edwards has to get past the three h's and persuade people that he is sincere. And, you know, he is a good stump speaker. He is a persuasive stump speaker. Those skills that he used in Iowa to come in a strong second place last time worked throughout the country. We tend to forget that Iowa especially is a rural state, and he plays well in rural America, and that's one of his hopes.

Strategy beyond Iowa

Dennis Goldford
Drake University
[I]t's hard to see how the money will keep flowing for Senator Edwards if he doesn't come in first in Iowa, as everybody at this point expects.

GWEN IFILL: What about his chances beyond Iowa, Professor, in Iowa and also in South Carolina and New Hampshire, which follows? Does everything hang on what happens in Iowa?

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Well, if you look at money on hand, for the moment, it looks as though Senator Clinton and Senator Obama each have about three times the amount of money that Senator Edwards has at this point. And from the outside looking in, it looks as though he's betting the house on Iowa. They could survive a second- or third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses; it's hard to see how the money will keep flowing for Senator Edwards if he doesn't come in first in Iowa, as everybody at this point expects. At the same time...

GWEN IFILL: So what are the issues, pardon me, that Iowa voters are looking to hear from him or others in order for him to break out of that pack?

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Well, in a way, Iowa voters are not that different from the rest of the country. Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, central issue, main issue. Also, domestically, things like health care, Social Security, education, some sort of energy independence. So Iowa voters are not that different in that regard from the rest of the country.

As the campaign goes on, it becomes harder and harder in some cases for candidates to distinguish themselves within one party from each other. That may be where this focus on poverty, eliminating poverty, lies for Senator Edwards, as his way of distinguishing his campaign

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that, Roger?

ROGER SIMON: I think one of Edwards' benefits is a good calendar. It starts in Iowa, where he has a strong organization, where he very cleverly exploited a strange fact of the Iowa caucus. It's not one person, one vote. You get more delegates by campaigning in rural areas than city areas.

Then the calendar may move to Nevada -- we're not sure yet -- where he's very strong with unions, hotel workers unions, food workers unions. Labor likes John Edwards. It's a good labor state.

Then we're going to move to New Hampshire. Not doing so well in New Hampshire, but then the contest is South Carolina. He was born in South Carolina. He represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate. The best thing that John Edwards has going for him, probably more important than his championing of poverty, is a calendar that seems to favor him.

The Elizabeth Edwards factor

Roger Simon
The Politico
The benefit of having a surrogate as an attack dog is that the candidate can distance himself from the attack, and he gets the benefit of the attack, plus the benefit of taking the high road.

GWEN IFILL: How about his wife, Elizabeth?

ROGER SIMON: Well, you know, she speaks her mind. She's a good campaigner. She's a good surrogate, but that's a very risky, I think, play she's making now. Surrogates can be attack dogs. The benefit of having a surrogate as an attack dog is that the candidate can distance himself from the attack, and he gets the benefit of the attack, plus the benefit of taking the high road.

But when your spouse is the attack dog, it's very hard to say, "Well, I didn't really authorize that statement, and she doesn't really speak for me." It is a strange dynamic. It's a dynamic that also may go on in the Hillary Clinton campaign, with President Clinton as the surrogate. It's something we haven't really seen that much of before.

GWEN IFILL: Professor, how do you think the Elizabeth Edwards factor, especially the sympathy factor, because of her ongoing illness, will resonate in Iowa?

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Well, I think that resonates fairly well. At the same time, the initial press on that garnered great sympathetic coverage and attention for her, but then I believe the haircut broke in and disrupted that somewhat.

She certainly is very attractive to professional Democratic women, to liberal Democratic women. But the bottom line, I would say, is just as people don't vote for a president because of who the vice presidential nominee is, people don't vote for a presidential candidate because of who the spouse may happen to be.

GWEN IFILL: So you're not hearing any rumblings from people saying, "Gee, I wish she were the candidate"?

DENNIS GOLDFORD: Well, we've heard rumblings like that ever since Betty Ford ran with Gerald Ford in 1976.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Professor Dennis Goldford and Roger Simon, thank you both very much.

ROGER SIMON: Thank you.

DENNIS GOLDFORD: A pleasure.