On a chill mid-November afternoon in New Hampshire, John Edwards unfurls his populist pitch at Plymouth State University, inveighing against the corruption in Washington, railing at “the powerful interests that have taken over our government.” Edwards, of course, has been hammering at these enemies all year, though rarely has he named any names apart from the predictable ones: Bush and Cheney, Halliburton and Blackwater. But now Edwards has added a new target to his list. In under an hour at Plymouth State, he attacks Hillary Clinton for her position on Iraq; for her coziness with lobbyists; for the cash she has raked in from the insurance, drug, and defense industries. Mentioning her vote to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, he turns Clinton’s new campaign slogan against her: “Somebody will have to explain to me how you ‘turn up the heat’ on the Republicans by voting with Bush and Cheney and the neocons on the path to war in Iran.”
When Edwards is done, I walk outside and head for the parking lot, where I come upon the rumpled figure of Joe Trippi—the brilliant, combative, controversial guru behind Howard Dean’s campaign in 2004 and now Edwards’s chief strategist—bellowing into his cell phone. “Look, dude, everyone has gotta understand, this is what we have to do,” Trippi is saying. “It’s like we’re in a burning building and there are two fire exits. We gotta pick one and head through that door as hard as we can.”
To more than a few observers, Trippi’s metaphor will seem all too apt. The perception among some in political circles and many in the press is that Edwards’s campaign is perilously close to going up in flames. That he’s slipping in Iowa, his must-win state, and gaining traction nowhere else. That his decision to go sharply negative on Clinton is an act of desperation. This perception is being fueled, not surprisingly, by his rivals. Last week, when Edwards pointedly refused to say he would endorse Clinton if she wins the nomination, Chris Dodd issued a tut-tutting statement suggesting that Edwards has lost his bearings: “I am surprised at just how angry John has become. This is not the same John Edwards I once knew.”
The Edwards that Dodd knew was the sunny moderate from their days in the Senate together. But the Edwards of 2007 is a very different cat. Whether his emergence as a full-throated neopopulist is a result of political expediency (the realization that the only way to take on Clinton was from her left) or a return to his roots as a trial lawyer is an open question. Either way, for months there has been debate in Edwards Land about just how aggressively confrontational the candidate should be. On one side has been Trippi, arguing in favor of pumping up the volume; on the other, Edwards’s longtime pollster and guardian of his Q rating, Harrison Hickman. What’s clear, however, is that Edwards is deeply comfortable with this new-old persona, which is why the campaign is piling through the fire exit Trippi favors.
Equally clear is that Edwards’s anti-Clinton tack is neither desperate nor impetuous. All along, there has never been much doubt that the time for serrated-edge contrast would come this fall. Or that Clinton would be the Democrat who would feel the blade. Everything that is happening now is part of a thoroughly calculated plan, long in gestation.
The odds against that plan’s working remain high, to be sure, though perhaps not as high as many assume. An Edwards win in Iowa strikes me, as it has all along, as eminently possible—and if it happens, not only will the race be thrown into complete and utter turmoil, but the Democratic Party will confront a momentous question. Is it really ready to cast its lot with a candidate who has fashioned himself more after Huey Long than after the sainted Bill Clinton?
A few hours after the Plymouth State event, I find myself riding with Edwards in his rented white minivan on the road to Hanover for a forum at Dartmouth. In his talk earlier, Edwards had walked right up to the edge of calling Clinton corrupt, so I ask him bluntly if he thinks that she is. “I don’t believe that,” he replies. “But she’s part of a system where corporate Democrats and corporate Republicans have too much control. That’s a fair way of saying it. And as long as you say taking lobbyists’ money, working with the lobbyists, working with the big corporate interests is the way to get big change, I think that means you’re defending and participating in a corrupt and broken system.”