MILWAUKEE -- Last Friday, John Edwards sat quietly among 20 or so soon-to-be-unemployed automotive workers, listening to them talk of working for three decades and then suddenly awakening last week to find their jobs bound for Mexico, their incomes and health-care coverage in jeopardy.
"It's wrong," he told them, his twang dropping to a whisper. The image dominated news coverage the next day -- and dramatically summarized the message of economic populism that was the core of Edwards's push here and that contributed to his strong second-place finish yesterday in the Wisconsin primary.
Addressing a jubilant crowd in Milwaukee after results showed him just behind Senator John F. Kerry, the front-runner, Edwards recalled those autoworkers. "When I go into the White House, I will wake up every day fighting for their jobs. And I'm going to take George Bush's job away from him!"
A NEW BOOST
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina gestures as he delivers a speech. Edward's surge in the Wisconsin primaries coming in a close second behind John Kerry has given his campaign a new boost. (AFP/File/Jeff Haynes)
As Edwards stumped across this frigid state over the last seven days, visiting northern farm communities, eastern blue-collar towns, and black inner-city churches, he focused intently on the economy. He bashed free trade. He bashed off-shore outsourcing. He bashed President Bush's job-creation record. He bashed his rivals for supporting the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he constantly spoke about his modest working-class roots.
Exit polls last night indicated the strategy paid off, with Edwards running well among all classes of voters in a state where three-fourths of residents blame free trade for their economic woes. Edwards won among those who rated the economy and jobs as their top issues, and was most popular with those who rated him higher on human qualities like caring about people. He also did exceptionally well among Republicans and independents, both of whom were allowed to vote in the open primary.
"Clearly, the Democratic primary is not over," said Lawrence University professor Christian Grose. "Edwards won over swing voters in a swing state . . . It makes me wonder if Kerry's electability is as great as people think."
Edwards still faces an uphill fight. With limited resources and still only one electoral win, in South Carolina, he must now campaign nationwide, with the Super Tuesday primary looming two weeks away. Advertising in the 10 far-flung states that vote on March 2 will be prohibitively costly for his campaign. He has already said he will rely primarily on the news media to spread his message. After yesterday, he is virtually guaranteed more coverage.
Whether that will be enough to beat Kerry in enough of the big states that vote in March and overcome Kerry's lead in delegates are the key questions. At the least, Edwards's stunning Wisconsin showing effectively transformed the Democratic presidential race into a two-senator contest.
Edwards and Kerry differ little in substance but dramatically in style and biography: Edwards has run as an economic populist with modest Southern roots; Kerry as a decorated veteran with political depth. Meanwhile, Edwards's rival as underdog challenger to Kerry, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, finished a distant third, further calling his troubled candidacy into question.
Even with Kerry dominating headlines last week as the all-but-certain nominee, Edwards changed little about his campaign here, employing the same dogged-yet-optimistic approach that elevated him in Iowa. As Kerry focused his energy on attacking President Bush, Edwards trained like a laser on economic issues, repeatedly criticizing free trade, telling working-class crowds: "We know about free trade. How about some fair trade."
It was a message that apparently resonated in Wisconsin.
Exit polls showed that 4 in 10 voters said jobs and the economy was their top issues. Edwards beat Kerry among those voters by 10 percentage points. Seven in 10 of Edwards's supporters said they picked him because they agreed with him on the issues. Kerry's support was split among issue-driven voters and those who believed the Massachusetts senator could beat Bush.
But the exit results also bolstered Edwards's claims of electability. About 10 percent of the Wisconsin electorate was Republican, and Edwards had a 30-point lead among them. Meanwhile, almost 30 percent were independents, and Edwards had a 10-point edge with them. Kerry beat Edwards among Democrats by 20 points.
"Republicans who would consider voting Democratic and independents are the people we have to win over to win the general election. That's why I'm the best candidate to take on George Bush," Edwards said.
Finally, Edwards did well among late-deciders: 6 in 10 made up their minds in the last week, and those voters favored the North Carolina senator 2 to 1.
The Edwards campaign last night appeared genuinely surprised by the showing, gathering only a 150-person crowd to celebrate at a banquet hall in a working-class Milwaukee neighborhood. But as the returns came in, anticipation gave way to unbridled joy. Edwards entered to the INXS pop hit "New Sensation."
"The voters of Wisconsin have sent a clear message. The message was this: Objects in your mirror may be closer than they appear," he said, clearly directing the comment at Kerry.
Edwards today has a fund-raiser planned in New York. Then, he campaigns in Georgia, Ohio, Maryland, and Minnesota, all with upcoming votes. His fund-raising efforts have generated a steady, if modest, flow of cash, although yesterday's results will likely help matters.
For the past two weeks, Edwards contended that publicity-driven momentum was behind Kerry's surge. It remains to be seen how much Edwards's Wisconsin performance slows Kerry. Moreover, Edwards has yet to campaign in the harsh national spotlight, which so disabled Dean. Wisconsin state Election Board officials estimated 1.6 million voters turned out yesterday, the highest number since 1980.
Before yesterday's results were in, Edwards had warm words for Kerry.
"I have a lot of respect for him, and I know he does for me. We're actually friends. But we have very different views," said Edwards.
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