PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
PCL: Political Communication Lab, Stanford University
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Edwards Is No Cheney -- And That's the Plan

Washington Post

Vanessa Williams
Sep 20, 2004

Democrats welcomed John Edwards in July as a much-needed jolt of energy to John F. Kerry's presidential campaign and dispatched the North Carolina senator to small towns and rural communities in battleground states, hoping he would connect with voters by sharing his success story of growing up in a working-class family.

But as Kerry's poll numbers waned along with the sunny days of summer, some party leaders began to grumble that Edwards was not doing his part. While President Bush and Vice President Cheney bombarded the Democratic ticket with damaging attacks, critics said that Edwards was not aggressive enough in defending Kerry and roughing up the Republicans.

Edwards and campaign aides argue that he is playing the role for which he was cast -- to build up Kerry's image as a leader and to tear down Bush's record, especially to independent and swing voters.

"People are overreacting," Edwards said in a telephone interview last week. "The Republicans overreacted when we went up a few points in August and now the people on our side are overreacting to the polls swinging the other way.

"I think that I have two responsibilities," he continued. "To make the case for why John Kerry should be president and the second is to make the case as powerfully as possible about what this administration has done to America and the American people -- and that's what I'm out there doing. . . . That's why it is important for me to be strong and to fight back whenever they say outrageous things."

During two months of campaigning, Edwards has responded to verbal bombs lobbed by the Bush campaign, including Cheney's suggestion two weeks ago that a Kerry victory would make the country more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. He said Cheney's comments were "meant to scare voters, period. . . . It was way over the top, and I think un-American"

What he doesn't do is go for the jugular, and mirror Cheney's role in the GOP campaign. The vice president energizes the base, talking about war, guns and abortion and making tough and often personal attacks against the Democrats. Edwards presents the friendly, empathetic face to voters on the fence. It is Kerry who uses the tough rhetoric to criticize Bush's leadership and integrity.

"I would dispute assertions some people have made that [Edwards] should adopt the persona and tactics of Dick Cheney," said Tad Devine, a top campaign adviser. He argued that Edwards's down-home, upbeat style has generated attention and excitement on the campaign trail "not by slashing and burning, which is Cheney's trademark. His campaign style is incredibly powerful and connects with people with a message of moving the nation in a new direction."

Shanto Iyengar, a Stanford University professor who specializes in political communication, agrees that Edwards would not be a credible hatchet man because of his studied effort all through the Democratic primaries to hew to the high road. Still, Iyengar said the campaign is not making the best use of Edwards's skills.

"I think the real problem is not that Edwards is not going enough negative, it's not seeing enough Edwards," Iyengar said. "He does really well articulating this idea of economic insecurity, and that seems to have slipped off the table in recent weeks" as the Bush campaign has kept the focus on Iraq and terrorism. Iyengar said the Kerry campaign should send Edwards to major media markets to get more attention for the campaign's argument that Bush has neglected working- and middle-class families.

Edwards has drawn large, enthusiastic crowds to rallies in West Virginia, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In recent weeks, some Democratic voters at the rallies have called on the candidates to fight back, including one woman in suburban Milwaukee who told Edwards that he and Kerry were letting the Republicans "run you over and make you look like idiots."

Campaign strategists say Edwards's mandate is to reach beyond the sign-waving partisans who show up at the rallies. They want him to garner the kind of favorable media that will reach independent and swing voters watching television in their living rooms or reading the morning paper over breakfast. And that, they say, is happening, pointing to the widespread local coverage of his visits.

Political scientists say negative attacks don't work with such voters. "Attacks charge up the batteries of strong Democrats and strong Republicans, but they're already counted," Iyengar said.

Edwards agrees. In an interview aboard his plane recently, he said he did not believe personally attacking Bush and Cheney was a winning strategy. "What drives me every day is not George Bush and Dick Cheney," he said. "What drives me every day is what they're doing to the kind of people I grew up with. . . . They're making their lives impossible, and they're doing it to help take care of their friends at Halliburton and people like that, and it's wrong. . . . I think the most effective way to do that is to focus on the facts because the facts are overwhelming."

He lays out the facts as he sees them in a stump speech that suggests Bush has done nothing right during four years in office. He declares that Bush has made "a mess" of the war in Iraq and blasts the administration for awarding a "multibillion-dollar, no-bid contract to Halliburton, Dick Cheney's company," to rebuild Iraq. He tells voters that Bush has betrayed them on economics issues: "Five million people have lost their health care, 4 million more people have fallen into poverty, more than 1 1/2 million private-sector jobs have been lost." This past week, in criticizing the ballooning federal deficit, Edwards accused Bush of acting "like he's Ken Lay and America is his Enron. . . . What happens when CEOs run a company the way George Bush has run America is they get fired."

But Edwards does not scowl or shout, and he chooses his words carefully. Last week, the campaign issued a statement attributed to Edwards, criticizing Bush's management of the economy. When Edwards delivered his remarks in Oregon, he left out some of the statement. Asked why, he said, "I said what I thought was the strongest thing to say. . . . I make my own judgments; people don't put words in my mouth."

Edwards fans, such as Lou D'Allesandro, a New Hampshire state senator who chaired Edwards's primary bid in that state, said the campaign should give the vice presidential nominee a more prominent role.

"The Republicans aren't fools. They use Cheney . . . for exactly what he's good at being -- mean and nasty," D'Allesandro said. "And we got a guy who can counter that with beautiful rhetoric and a great message and someone who is as likable and connectable as anyone in the business. People leave the venue wanting more of John Edwards, so we should give them more John Edwards."{grv}

Staff writer David Snyder contributed to this report.