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Edwards' Bumper Sticker

By Salena Zito

Last month he was the poster boy for hair bling and offshore fund-dumping.

Last week he was spanked for receiving $55,000 to speak to a group of students at a public college about poverty and getting a cut of the booty from the recovery of $500 million in sunken treasure.

But this Memorial Day weekend, after holding steady to his lead in the polls in Iowa, John Edwards will try to make himself over as the anti-war candidate and then never look back.

Through ads and a newly launched Web site -- -- Edwards asks Americans to "call on our government to support our troops in the most important way it can, by ending this war and bringing them home."

"Watch out for John Edwards," says Democrat political strategist Steve McMahon. "The position he is staking out on the war is far more popular with a much bigger group of Democratic primary voters than anyone currently understands."

And if he can just stop being associated with copious amounts of cash and hair gel, and get on with the business of being a serious in-your-face anti-war candidate, he just might be successful.

Edwards' position -- which he staked out by rapping the Bush administration's use of the phrase "war on terror" as a Republican bumper sticker -- is in a position that many Democrats wanted their primary candidates to occupy.

With the crowd bitterly disappointed by the way Congress' Democrat leadership has fizzled on cutting war funding, Edwards is reading this one just right.

If the Howard Dean campaign taught Democrats anything, it is this: If you have the right candidate, with the right message, the grassroots will flock to you.

John Edwards understands that and now is actually doing something about it.

The Democrats' biggest problem has been that the candidates who have taken strong positions against the war tend not to be the plausible candidates to win a general election.

Ned Lamont, Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's midterm nemesis, was never really a plausible or probable winner in the general election, but he could say all of those anti-war things.

House candidate Paul Hackett in Ohio was never really a plausible winner in the general election, even though he came closer than most expected.

Howard Dean was someone many Democrats wondered about, but most thought he couldn't win. He was No. 1 in their hearts, but not necessarily No. 1 in their program.

But John Edwards has the opportunity to become No. 1 in Democrat hearts, and people already believe he is a plausible nominee for November 2008.

And if he gains traction, you will see the same reaction from the other candidates that you saw when Howard Dean rose in the ranks: denial followed by acceptance, and then fear followed by desperation.

Contrary to popular perception, this is not a two-person race; Edwards is in first place in Iowa -- and winning there is jet fuel for a campaign. His standings in Iowa keep this a two-and-a-half-person race, the two being Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

If he goes full-force as a conjoined Gephardt-Dean candidate -- strong on labor, throwing the war onto his opponents' laps -- Edwards can make this a three-candidate race.

"He'll try to wrap this war around the other candidates like lead weights on their ankles," strategist McMahon predicts, "and if he succeeds, we're all going see whether any of his competitors is a strong swimmer."

If not, the only bumper sticker that Edwards or any other Democrat candidate should worry about is one I saw last week:


Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at

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