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.