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Edwards Turns Left, and Finds Howard Dean

By Blake D. Dvorak

While Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton had it out last week, John Edwards was the forgotten man. Even though the Politico's veteran reporter Roger Simon gave the June 23 CNN/YouTube debate to Edwards, it wasn't Edwards who enjoyed a week of headlines and cable-news stardom.

The week in fact seemed to define Edwards' entire second run for the White House: A solid candidate who inspires the base but can't escape the Clinton-Obama shadow. No matter how many times Edwards flanks the two frontrunners on their left, he can't gain traction.

Could this explain the noticeable shift in Edwards' rhetoric recently? As Democratic strategist David Sirota said in an interview, what we're hearing from Edwards these days is a "full-throated populism."

For instance, aside from the Obama-Clinton flap, the next most significant moment in the YouTube debate came when Edwards said:

"Do you believe that compromise, triangulation will bring about big change. I don't. I think the people who are powerful in Washington - big insurance companies, big drug companies, big oil companies - they are not going to negotiate. They are not going to give away their power. The only way they are going to give away their power is if we take it away from them."

The obvious shot at Clinton seemed to be the culmination of several small hits on the front-runner - ironically, many coming from Elizabeth Edwards and not her husband. In any case, the shift is detected in how Edwards defined the enemy as the "powerful." Clinton herself perhaps wasn't a part of what Edwards was referring to, but her brand of governing certainly wasn't going to solve the problem. Subtle, but a marked contrast to Edwards a month earlier.

Of course the Edwards who entered the 2008 campaign always planned on being different than the Edwards who lost the 2004 campaign. Some themes indeed carried over, like the "Two Americas" and the "son of a mill worker" shtick. But then blue-collar populism has always been Edwards' message. The 2008 campaign was to be a purer, non-apologetic populism, except that instead of Howard Dean's anger, Edwards' would soften his message with charm and optimism.

In short, Edwards hoped to be Obama before Obama was in the race.

But by the time Edwards finished his RFK-inspired poverty tour just before the CNN/YouTube debate, it was clear to many in the media and on the left that it just wasn't working. After being at an April high of 17.8% in the RCP Average, Edwards had sunk to just over 10%. He had received almost no bounce from his heavily covered poverty tour, which in any case had been forgotten the day after the debate. It was enough to make Newsweek's Jonathan Darman lament: "There is something tragic about Edwards' failure to break through."

And so following the debate in which Edwards focused on the "powerful in Washington," his campaign put up on its YouTube page a video of him talking to a small gathering in Creston, Iowa. Although his regular, calm self, what Edwards said was anything but:

"They want to shut me up. That's what this is about. Let's distract from people who don't have health-care coverage. Let's distract from people who can't feed their children. Let's distract from people who can't pay for their medicine. Let's talk about this silly, frivolous, nothing stuff, so America won't pay attention. They will never silence me."

Where did that come from? Set aside the veiled paranoia, it sounded desperate, almost whiney. But why then was the campaign promoting it? We learned why a few days later, when Edwards appeared on the Ed Schultz radio show:

"We have to fight back against these people. We can't let them do this kind of stuff to us ... They want to shut all of us up, Ed. That's what this is all about. I'm amazed you're still able to talk on the radio ... [W]e're going to stand up and fight and we together, all of us, we will not be silenced."

Edwards spokeswoman Colleen Murray said that "they" in both instances refers to "special interests, PACs, and lobbyists which have taken control of Washington." In contrast to the optimistic charm of Obama and the establishment power of Clinton, Edwards was aiming for Sirota's "full-throated populism."

As Sirota explained, the "Edwards' critique has broadened into a more systemic critique, rather than an issue-by-issue critique ... about Washington, about how power works." In fact, Sirota added, it's like Obama in reverse.

If Edwards can't be Obama, he might just try to be Dean - but maybe without all the shouting. Dean, you'll recall, also used an "us vs. them" style. On the stump he would chant, "You have the power!" His fans ate it up; it carried him to the top of the polls; and it was ultimately his undoing.

But Edwards doesn't do angry all that well, so there's a limit to how far he can skew toward the Dean model - just as he is limited by how much farther he can move to the left. And it might also be a major miscalculation. After all, if anger and "full-throated populism" were the qualities of a Democratic frontrunner, then why aren't Obama and Clinton exhibiting much of either?

Blake D. Dvorak is an assistant editor at RealClearPolitics.

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