KERRY TAKES THE EDWARDS CHALLENGE
by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
BRADENTON, Fla., Feb. 18, 2004 -- For U.S. Sen. John Kerry, a 5-point victory in Wisconsin Tuesday night marked the end of the first phase of his back-from-the-dead campaign for the presidency. It saw the demise of the populist candidacy of former Vt. Gov. Howard Dean. and the emergence of U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as a rival - however late and unlikely - for the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential nomination in Boston in August.
Taking nearly 40 percent of the vote in Wisconsin, Kerry turned back a strong last-minute challenge Tuesday night from Edwards to capture his 15th of 17 contested primary and caucus races ahead of the definitive Super Tuesday regional primaries on March 2. Edwards' 34 percent was a stronger-than-expected showing, but he remains far behind Kerry in delegates after winning only once in 14 outings. Kerry now holds 448 delegates to Edwards' 161.
For Kerry, the outcome was muddled by the fact that some 39 percent of the voters told exit pollsters they were not Democrats (Wisconsin primary rules allow any registered voter to participate in any party's primary) but Independents or Republicans.
Among Democrats only, according to exit polls published in today's New York Times, Kerry took 58 percent of the vote, and again led strongly in a broad range of categories including among women, people earning less than $50,000, and among voters with less than a college education. Among those whose first goal was to beat President George W. Bush in November, Sen. Kerry won 70 percent. Among Kerry voters, 75 percent said they were Democrats; only 55 percent of Edwards voters said the same.
Edwards was buoyed by his sixth second-place victory (he has placed fourth seven times), and seemed to be moving closer to the two-man race his advisors predict he can win. In Tuesday's contest, Republicans said they voted for him at three times the rate they did for Kerry, suggesting that Republicans may have backed him to weaken the momentum Kerry has achieved with his long string of victories. Many polls currently show the Massachusetts senator beating President Bush by a double-digit margin in November.
For this observer, the outcome was not a surprise. Polls showed Edwards steadily gaining, and in crossover states like Wisconsin, they are notoriously unreliable. Kerry may have been injured, at least slightly, by a phony picture that was doctored to make him appear to be sitting near Jane Fonda at a demonstration, and by a false claim that he had an affair with an intern. The woman, who was never an intern, denied that she had ever been involved with Mr. Kerry, and her parents - whom the British tabloid The Sun said had called him a "sleazeball" - said instead that they appreciated how he handled the issue and said they intended to vote for him.
But Kerry is showing some signs of weakness that could become serious in the Super Tuesday states. One involves his visceral appeal. Charmed by a genuinely happy smile that emerged when he won the Iowa caucus, his advisors suggested he smile more. Now he smiles inappropriately, reducing the sense of authenticity he earlier brought to the race. At the same time, others who are not in his camp say that he has once again grown heavy and ponderous in his speeches, and is missing some of the passion that energized his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire. That was not evident on Tuesday night.
Yet Kerry may be losing many voters by not asking a singular question: "Why aren't they fighting for our jobs?" Voters of both parties are now unable to pin blame on anyone for the fact that thousands of American jobs are going to India, China and other impoverished nations where labor is cheap and costs are low. Voters understand that the same list of corporations regularly displayed on "Lou Dobbs Tonight" are ones that have the strongest lobbyists, provide substantial funding to candidates and are bellwethers for the whole economy as their stocks improve. That leaves them frustrated and friendless - and still searching for a candidate. John Edwards appears to hear them better as he hammers away at the pain of losing a job, something he says he observed often as he grew up in a mill town.
But neither man asks why no one is fighting back for them within the Bush administration. Both seem afraid to name the companies they implicitly criticize, as Lou Dobbs does nightly, and voters don't understand why. Candidates may feel it's wrong to risk harming some companies by naming them, and Kerry does single out both Enron and Tyco for criticism, but both companies are old news. In a world dominated by giant multinational companies that rival many national governments in size and influence, there is a sense that an American presidential candidate is a tool of their interests unless he takes them on in the public way that Kerry supporter Eliot Spitzer, New York's activist attorney general, has.
However, that's a highly dangerous thing to do; the companies not only have their immense advertising clout among the very few remaining sources of news, but substantial influence in states where they have plants and large numbers of workers. Like teenagers, such workers are a potent source of "buzz" and momentum who often are swayed by subtle changes in the way their superiors discuss a candidate. Only when a candidate seems to stand above the fray and point out inescapable truths are they moved away from the protective cover of the company line.
Instead of decking the Bush administration for standing apart from workers as their jobs drift overseas, Kerry's approach is to threaten to penalize "Benedict Arnold" corporations who find loopholes in tax codes that serve as incentives to place jobs in cheaper overseas labor markets. In today's history-challenged America, the young people who are the vehicles of "buzz" have no clue who Benedict Arnold may have been, and workers also don't care what happens after their jobs are gone as much as they care about avoiding their loss. Kerry's approach once seemed angry and appropriate, but as he repeats the same phrases to "stay on message" they carry less and less force.
If he is not to be undone in the late primaries by an Edwards surge - based on his youthful appearance, trial lawyer's argumentation and authentic appeal to class differences between himself and Kerry - the frontrunner must establish some common ground with workers. Kerry should note that Edwards has never performed even an hour of pro bono work as a lawyer despite winning millions in lawsuits. He can propose a new division of the Dept. of Labor that actively seeks to prevent the flow of jobs overseas with counter-incentives, tax penalties, public criticism and contract denials. He should bring to the forefront his own experience of hard labor during his college years, when he worked on fishing boats.
Some of his punch lines are not working as well as they did just a week or two ago. Kerry needs to learn the political trick of incorporating those punch lines into further statements, so that lines like "Bring it on" remain but are integrated into a new rhetorical flourish. Kerry could say, for instance, "We told George Bush we are ready for him and Dick Cheney to stake their future on a national security campaign. We told them to "Bring it on." Well, they haven't brought it on. They've brought on instead a new era of military indecision that reminds me of the doubletalk I heard in the trenches of Vietnam." He should cut about a half-inch off his pompadour, replace the canned smile with a heartfelt grin, and start asking the question no one asks: Why the hell aren't those "friends of the working man" in Washington doing anything to keep American jobs in America?
Another unexploited and potent issue for Americans lies in the fundamental betrayal of humanity that China has displayed in exporting nuclear plans to Pakistan, which promptly exported them to the fundamentalist world of Islam. Why must China be so heavily favored by U.S. trade policy when it has demonstrably endangered all of humanity with its political opportunism and dangerous games? American workers can understand that question, but it remains to be seen if our candidates can ask it.
Joe Shea, Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter, is a longtime supporter of Sen. John Kerry.