DES MOINES -- The big news story out of Iowa last week told of the endorsement by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. Harkin, Iowa's senior Democrat, has a record of picking winners in the caucuses -- he was Al Gore's most prominent backer in 2000 -- and his support for the frontrunner was read by many as another indication that Dean may be unstoppable as Iowa's January 19 caucuses approach.
But Harkin's endorsement should not have come as a huge surprise. He's a fiery populist whose style and sentiments pretty much parallel those of Dean's campaign. And he is also a smart politician, who was unlikely to go a different direction than the core of grassroots party activists who form his own base and who have been Dean's most enthusiastic backers.
A more surprising endorsement came to light when Sunday editions of the state's largest newspaper, the Des Moines Register, began circulating around the state. The Register, one of the few major daily newspapers that maintains a reasonably consistent left-of-center editorial stance, could easily have gone for Dean. But it didn't. Nor did the paper back former House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who hails from neighboring Missouri and who polls suggest is running closest to Dean. The Register's editorial board even skipped over the race's "safe" liberal, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who has secured several other newspaper endorsements in recent days.
The Register, which does not always pick the winners of the Democratic caucuses but which always influences the process, gave its endorsement to North Carolina Senator John Edwards. "The more we watched him, the more we read his speeches and studied his positions, the more we saw him comport himself in debate, the more we learned about his life story, the more our editorial board came to conclude he's a cut above the others," declared the Register's editorial, which was the talk of Iowa on Sunday. "John Edwards is one of those rare, naturally gifted politicians who doesn't need a long record of public service to inspire confidence in his abilities. His life has been one of accomplishing the unexpected, amid flashes of brilliance."
The endorsement came at precisely the point when Edwards needed it. His campaign, which never seemed to gain traction during the long run through 2003, has finally started to get good marks. Of all the self-promoting books written by the candidates -- or, in a most cases, ghostwritten for them -- Edwards produced the finest text, an unexpectedly moving recollection of his legal career titled Four Trials. The first-term senator, who did not seem in the early stages of his campaign to be ready for the primetime of presidential politics, has in recent weeks drawn best-of-show reviews for his debate performances. And he is translating his debating prowess to the stump. The former trial lawyer has perfected a closing argument for Iowa voters that is a William Jennings Bryan-style call to arms against corporate agribusiness, free trade deals that lead to shuttered factories in the heartland, and tax policies that redistribute wealth upward to a wealthy few.
Edwards went into the final week before the caucuses touting a plan to raise 10 million working Americans out of poverty, the sort of ambitious and positive policy initiative that has distinguished the senator's campaign in the eyes of observers who were once skeptical. Stanford University law professor Lawrence Lessig, the chair of the Creative Commons project, noted in a review of Four Trails, "Edwards is the rare politician who continues to surprise, the more you learn, and surprise in the best possible way."
While the other major candidates have taken to battering one another with last- minute attacks, Edwards has reserved his fire for the fat cats -- in and out of the Bush administration. As the Iowa campaigns of Dean, Kerry and Gephardt have grown increasingly bitter, Edwards' emphasis on issues rather than personalities has drawn praise. Indeed, in his endorsement of Dean, Harkin paid tribute to Edwards' high-road approach. Harkin isn't the only one who has noticed that Edwards is running a different and, in many ways, more appealing campaign than the other prominent contenders. Indeed, Edwards appears to be making a last-minute connection with Iowa Democrats; a Reuter/MSNBC/Zogby poll released Sunday showed Dean leading Gephardt 25-23 percent, with Kerry in third place at 14 percent. But the real news was that Edwards had moved up to 13 percent, just one point behind Kerry.
If that poll is tracking the race right, the Register endorsement could well move Edwards into the upper tier of candidates, as a 1988 endorsement by the paper of U.S. Sen. Paul Simon did in that year's caucus race. The Register's argument was compelling:
"On issues, the major contenders for the nomination aren't far apart. They differ in emphasis and detail, but all have the same general thrust: Roll back some or all of the Bush tax cuts and redirect the money into health care and education. Conduct a foreign policy that is more collaborative and less bellicose. The underlying theme of the Democrats is that the government under President Bush is serving the interests of wealth and privilege, not of ordinary Americans. Howard Dean's call to "take our country back" is the rallying cry," the editorial explained. "Dean has the slogan, but it is Edwards who most eloquently and believably expresses this point of view, with his trial-lawyer skill for distilling arguments into compelling language that moves a jury of ordinary people. He speaks of there being two Americas: ‘One America does the work, while another America reaps the reward. One America pays the taxes, while another America gets the tax breaks. If we want America to be a growing, thriving democracy with the strongest middle class on Earth, we must choose a different path.'"
The Register concluded its endorsement by painting Edwards as the candidate best able to draw clear distinctions between himself and Bush in a November face-off:
"If Edwards wins the Democratic nomination, voters this fall would have a choice between two men who almost perfectly embody the rival political philosophies in America today. George W. Bush and John Edwards are attractive, likable, energetic. They have about the same level of prior experience in government - and they are polar opposites," argued the Register's editors.
"Bush is from a prominent family, attended Ivy League universities, made his fortune in business and fervently believes the philosophy of ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.' His policies flow from the conviction that all Americans will gain if business is largely unfettered and if investors are better rewarded.
"Edwards is from a working-class family, attended public universities, made his fortune representing ordinary people in the courtroom and fervently believes that America does best when doors of opportunity are open to anyone willing to work and get ahead. He says those opportunities are being choked off in an America today that rewards wealth, not work. Emblematic of his approach is his proposal to pay the first year's tuition to a state university or community college for any student willing to work.
"Like all the Democratic candidates, Edwards is strongly critical of Bush, but with him it tends to be a little less personal. He emphasizes his goal is not merely to replace Bush but to change America."
Edwards will not win Iowa. But he does not need to do so. If he can displace Kerry and secure a third-place finish he will get the credit for "exceeding expectations" and be able to carry on at least through the February 3 South Carolina primary, which Edwards must win if he is going to remain in the running. That there is the prospect of an Edwards surge, however, is just the latest unexpected turn in a contest that continues to defy both expectations and conventional wisdom.