Running for the Democratic nomination for president has taught John Edwards some things he did not know about American politics. And not all of what the North Carolina senator has learned is encouraging.
For instance, Edwards says, he has come to understand why campaigns so frequently turn so very ugly. As the candidate who many analysts see as the last contender with a chance to derail the juggernaut that is propelling Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry toward the party’s nomination, Edwards says he has come under intense pressure to attack the frontrunner.
“You can’t imagine the pressure to go negative,” says Edwards. “There are so many people who say, ‘This is what you have to do to win it.'”
In high-stakes contests, candidates do not merely get pressure from campaign consultants to savage their opponents in attack ads on television and take-no-prisoners mailings. The push to go negative can also come from prominent backers and financial contributors who want to make sure they are investing in a campaign that will go the distance.
Such prodding is usually felt behind-the-scenes. But, for Edwards, the pressure has moved out of the political backrooms and into the open.
In recent days, the first-term senator, who beat Kerry in South Carolina and has posted solid second-place finishes in caucuses and primaries elsewhere, has used an issues-based, populist campaign against corporate free-trade deals to battle his way into second place behind Kerry in polls of likely voters in tomorrow’s Wisconsin primary. With Kerry having already secured wins in fourteen of sixteen caucus and primary contests so far, many analysts say Wisconsin is a make-or-break state for Edwards and the candidate who is running third in most polls, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.
Yet, while Dean has attacked Kerry, Edwards has eschewed negative campaigning. That has helped him retain his “Mr. Nice Guy” reputation. And it has won endorsements from some prominent Democrats, such as Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, the progressive mayor of Madison, Wisconsin’s second-largest city. Cieslewicz said he was attracted to Edwards in part because of the senator’s clean campaign.
Yet, while everyone says they want campaigns to be upbeat, Edwards is taking hits for not hitting his opponents. A Sunday New York Times article on Edwards appeared beneath the headline, “Do You Need to Go Negative to Topple a Front-Runner?”
“Many Democratic strategists say that as he faces a critical primary in Wisconsin on Tuesday, it is time for Mr. Edwards to offer voters a reason they should not vote for Mr. Kerry,” noted the Times, above a quote form Democratic strategist Bill Carrick suggesting that a candidate in the position where the North Carolinian finds himself must launch “some substantial attack” in order to close the gap.
But Edwards shows no signs of ditching his resolutely positive appeal. In last night’s final debate before the primary, he would only go so far as to challenge suggestions that Kerry had essentially secured the nomination, exclaiming, “Not so fast, John Kerry.”