Paul Wellstone would have loved the turn the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has taken. Throughout the 2000 primary season, the Senator from Minnesota was frustrated that neither Al Gore nor Bill Bradley would acknowledge that something very serious had taken place on the streets of Seattle in fall 1999. Wellstone believed that the mass outpouring of opposition to the World Trade Organization in particular, and to the corporate free-trade agenda in general, had provided Democrats with an outline for the reassertion of a progressive populist politics that would bring blue-collar workers back into the party fold, reconnect the party with its rural roots and energize young people concerned about sweatshops and human rights. But neither Gore nor Bradley, both resolute free traders, would talk about the growing evidence that free-trade policies were benefiting corporations but doing severe damage to workers, the environment and communities–in the United States and abroad. During an interview shortly before his death, in 2002, Wellstone told me, “If Al Gore had learned how to talk about trade, he would have carried states like Ohio and Missouri and won the 2000 race easily.”

What a difference four years makes. The issues that were locked out of the 2000 Democratic debates are front and center in 2004 and played an important part in securing John Edwards’s strong second-place showing in Wisconsin against John Kerry. Dennis Kucinich, who marched with Wellstone in Seattle, and Howard Dean–who told the audience at the final debate before Wisconsin’s vote, “We’ve globalized the rights of big corporations…. We did not globalize human rights, labor rights and environmental rights, and we need to do that”–deserve credit for pushing Kerry to begin rewriting his talking points on trade. But it is the increasingly populist campaign of Edwards that has forced Kerry to start getting specific about how he would break with the Clinton-Bush approach.

Gambling that he could make himself Kerry’s chief challenger in Wisconsin by concentrating on trade issues, Edwards muscled up his class-focused “two Americas” speech to include a harsh critique of NAFTA and other trade deals, cut new TV commercials along the same lines and took his message on the road to union halls and ethnic clubs from Eau Claire to Wausau, to Janesville and the south side of Milwaukee, all of which have suffered, as Wisconsin has lost 75,000 manufacturing jobs during the Bush presidency. Wisely, Edwards also took the message to liberal Madison and to Republican-leaning counties around Milwaukee, where fears about the outsourcing of white-collar jobs are making trade policy a suburban issue. Even as Kerry tried to talk tough on trade, telling the final debate audience, “I will not sign a trade agreement like the Central American Free Trade Agreement or the Free Trade of the Americas Act that does not now embrace enforceable labor and environment standards,” Edwards noted Kerry’s support of NAFTA and other free trade agreements and told them, “Senator Kerry is entitled…to support free trade, as [he] always [has].”

Edwards’s stronger-than-expected finish–he closed only six points behind Kerry after a late surge–ended any hope Dean had of emerging as the last serious challenger to Kerry, causing the Vermonter to end his campaign. But it also shook the Kerry camp, which rewrote the Senator’s victory speech to include a promise to “insist on workers’ rights and environmental rights and human rights in every trade agreement” and an Edwards-like pledge to “cut the poverty of millions, not the taxes of millionaires.”

Edwards says he has the money and the momentum to take his trade message to Ohio, Georgia and upstate New York, as well as other “Super Tuesday” states that will vote March 2. But he’ll be hindered by an unlikely group of Kerry allies: industrial unions that endorsed former House minority leader Dick Gephardt’s failed campaign but switched their support to Kerry on the morning of the Wisconsin primary. Thus, unions that for more than a decade stood against the free-trade agenda will be pulling against the candidate who agrees with them. “Frankly, it’s embarrassing,” an AFL-CIO official admitted. He’s right, but if Edwards keeps making trade an issue, Kerry might just learn from him, as he has from Dean, that the way to win the White House this year is to take stands that contrast sharply with those of the GOP. From Dean he learned to speak about Bush’s unilateral war; from Edwards he appears to be learning that he must make a convincing case that he will change trade policy. Before the primaries are done, the still-too-staid Kerry might even come to understand that economic populism wins votes.