In Democratic Race, What Tier Should John Edwards Be in?

by Stuart Rothenberg March 29, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Now that former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has announced that his wife is once again fighting cancer but that he remains in the presidential race, it’s time to ask the obvious question: Is the Democratic race a two-person contest between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) or a three-way race with Edwards also in the mix?

Edwards served more time in the Senate than Obama has, and he was his party’s nominee for vice president in 2004 after running a credible race for the top job on the ticket.

But he has been eclipsed by two celebrities — a woman and an African-American — who have more star power and fundraising ability.

Edwards’ strengths in the race for the 2008 Democratic nomination include a tenacity evidenced by his decision to keep running after his ticket’s defeat in 2004, a strong performance on the stump and a surprisingly strong second-place showing in the ’04 Iowa caucuses. Anyone who has seen the former Senator performing in the round, surrounded by a group of Iowa caucus attendees or New Hampshire voters, has seen his skill in talking to and connecting with his audience. He oozes sincerity.

Edwards’ “Two Americas” stump speech generally received high marks from neutral observers in the previous presidential cycle, and he begins with experience he didn’t have last time, a team that has been through this before and an important reservoir of support in Iowa, probably the single-most crucial state for him.

If Edwards can place first or second in the Hawkeye State’s caucuses, he can dramatically alter the Democratic race. Not only would it boost the buzz about the former Senator, but it also would create a media swarm around the third-place finisher, whether Obama or Clinton, who would have to answer questions about why he or she finished third.

Most observers think Edwards has some latent strength in Nevada, which is scheduled to have its caucuses on the Saturday after Iowa’s, because of his support within organized labor. And he has obvious appeal in South Carolina, where he was born and which he won rather convincingly in 2004.

But nobody knows for sure how influential the Nevada caucuses will be (since New Hampshire is likely to be the national media’s focus after Iowa), and South Carolina has two major problems for Edwards. First, he faces a very different field this time, since Obama and Clinton have appeal in the state that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the Rev. Al Sharpton and retired Gen. Wesley Clark did not. And second, the Palmetto State primary could be anticlimactic if one Democrat wins both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Obviously, fundraising questions surround Edwards since both Clinton and Obama would seem to be able to raise in excess of $100 million this year for their campaigns. And while Edwards’ experience in the presidential arena undoubtedly is an asset, he is not the fresh face that he was in his previous race.

Some criticize Edwards for “moving left” this cycle, a characterization that allies of the former Senator say is unfair. Edwards’ supporters argue that his views haven’t changed. That may be so, but the perception that his message is more explicitly liberal this time can’t be ignored.

Edwards’ international experience is no greater now than it was during his previous run, but he gets credit from Democrats for quickly saying that his vote giving the president authority to use force against Iraq was a mistake. However, the suggestion by consultant Bob Shrum that he made a political miscalculation in advising Edwards to vote for the measure — though Edwards quickly responded by dismissing the idea that his vote was politically calculated — seems to confirm the views of those observers who find Edwards too slick for their liking.

Edwards’ biggest problem right now may be the media’s tendency to define the Democratic race as a two-person contest, Clinton versus Obama. That makes fundraising tougher and may cause some Democrats in early states not to consider him as an alternative.

But the media attention to Elizabeth Edwards’ health, and to her husband’s commitment to her, is bound to boost Edwards’ presidential prospects short-term, creating both sympathy for him and an admiration about the relationship the Edwardses have, at least among Democrats.

I expect that Edwards will have time between now and mid-January to meet enough people and get his views out to be competitive. And if one of the frontrunners falters, he could be well-positioned to become an alternative. He remains the Democrat most likely to upset the Clinton-Obama apple cart.

What tier is John Edwards in? He’s either at the back of the top tier or between the top and second tiers. That certainly doesn’t make him a frontrunner, but it means, at least at this point, that he is in the ballgame.