Edwards goes on to enumerate the many “differences I have with Senator Clinton on a whole range of issues.” But when I ask about Barack Obama, Edwards not only speaks warmly of how they are substantively simpatico, he prefaces his comments about their stylistic divergences—Obama’s tendency toward conciliation, Edwards’s toward confrontation—with the emphatic phrase, “Now, I’m not criticizing him.”
On first inspection, the strategy of going after Clinton while giving Obama a pass might seem odd: After all, Edwards and Obama are competing for the non-Hillary vote in Iowa. But the Edwards approach has its logic. Roughly 120,000 voters participated in the caucuses in 2004, and the savviest operatives in all three campaigns assume that something like half of likely caucusgoers are still undecided. (That public polls put the percentage at between 10 and 15 percent is dismissed as yet another sign of those polls’ notorious unreliability when it comes to Iowa.) For the Edwards campaign, the first crucial task in the next month and a half is to raise the stakes of the election in the eyes of those 60,000 undecided voters, to convince them that fundamental change is necessary, that not just any Democrat will do in 2008. Because if any Democrat will do, Clinton—the safe choice, the known commodity—likely wins.
In the drive to raise the stakes thus, the Obama campaign serves a useful purpose, for its message of root-and-branch transformation of Washington echoes that of Edwards. It’s also the case that Obama and Edwards’s demographic bases (upscale for the former, downscale for the latter) don’t overlap as much as Edwards’s and Clinton’s do, so Edwards and Obama can both grow their ranks of supporters without cannibalizing each other’s. And that, if Edwards and Clinton later wind up in a one-on-one race, the Edwards people hope to pick up Obama’s fans, particularly the young ones—hence an imperative to tread lightly on the Illinois senator.
So the Edwards and Obama camps are de facto allies in the cause of toppling Clinton? Certainly, in the weeks following Clinton’s wretched debate performance at the end of October in Philadelphia, the two sides seemed not just to be crooning from the same songbook, but doing so in perfect-pitch a cappella harmony. In the blogosphere, where some Edwards boosters saw the putative alliance as a suicide pact for their man, theories even sprouted that Trippi—who angled for a job with Obama before signing on with Edwards and is a friend of Obama’s backroom Svengali, David Axelrod—was an Obama mole within the House of Edwards.
In fact, the Obama campaign has never seen the situation the way the Edwards people do. If there was any doubt that this was true, it was removed last week, when David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, unleashed a strategy memo that strafed Edwards almost as severely as it did Clinton. “On many core issues the Edwards of today is different than the Edwards of 1998, or even 2004,” Plouffe wrote. “It’s admirable to admit mistakes but John Edwards has apologized for most of his record while in the Senate, saying he got it wrong on trade with China, Right to Work, Packer Ban, No Child Left Behind, Bankruptcy reform and of course, the Iraq War.” And for good measure, Plouffe added, “Senator Edwards does not show an inclination toward unity, suggesting compromise is a dirty word.”
The objectives of Obama’s team are straightforward: to make Iowa (and the rest of the contest) a two-person race between their guy and Hillary. In Plouffe’s telling, Edwards is fading fast in Iowa. And a key Obama supporter there, the former state party chairman Gordon Fischer, gave an interview last week disparaging the turnout of Edwards supporters at the big-deal Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on November 10, arguing that Obama was well poised to pick up Edwards’s voters, whom he described as “up for grabs.”
Methinks they doth protest too much. Indeed, the fact that Plouffe and Fischer are posturing this way suggests that the Obama forces continue to fear the prospect of being trumped by Edwards in Iowa. And with good reason. So far Obama has spent some $5 million on advertising in the state, and Clinton’s total is more than $3 million, whereas as of two weeks ago, Edwards had spent just $20,000. And yet the race remains a statistical three-way dead heat.
More to the point, because of the bizarro nature of the caucuses—the participants must go out, on a frigid night, for a multi-hour ordeal of public declarations of support and multiple rounds of voting—the contest in Iowa is a slog-it-out ground war, in which organization and get-out-the-vote efforts are paramount. And here all sides concede privately that Edwards’s team, which has been in place essentially for five years, is the class of the field. When I ask Edwards if he’s concerned about signs of slippage in Iowa, he literally laughs in my face. “We have 99 county chairs and about 75 percent of the precincts covered with precinct chairs,” he says. “I know how to run a caucus campaign in Iowa—and so do the people who work for me.”