Tuesday, December 18, 2007
John Edwards - "The few, the powerful, the well-financed, they now control the government, and it affects everything that happens in this country."
By Tim Jones
Tribune national correspondent
December 16, 2007
IOWA CITYThe Chevy truck song -- John Mellencamp's "Our Country" -- blared from overhead speakers as the once and former Democratic beacon of sunshine and hope prepared to drop some red meat on the carpeted floor of the normally placid Iowa City Public Library.
"The few, the powerful, the well-financed, they now control the government," John Edwards told a tight crowd of about 350 last week. "They've taken over your democracy. And it affects everything that happens in this country."
"Everything," he emphasized.
During an 18-minute span, the former North Carolina senator took aim and fired freely at insurance, oil and drug companies and failed chief executives rewarded with golden parachutes. He described the Republican field as "George Bush on steroids" and said his Democratic competitors are talkers, not fighters.
In what has often been portrayed as a two-Democrat battle -- between Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Clinton of New York -- the populist Edwards is making an eight-day blitz across the frozen fields of Iowa, a sort of red-meat express to convince the middle class that he is the one who will wrest the country from the clutches of "corporate power and greed."
'I'm not Oprah'
Just days after Oprah Winfrey campaigned for Obama and former President Bill Clinton stumped for his wife, Edwards recruited actor Tim Robbins at the start of his swing across the state. Robbins reminded crowds in Iowa City, Grinnell and Des Moines that "I'm not Oprah." Then he set the tone.
It's time, Robbins said, "to get the crooks and the liars" out of Washington.
At 54, Edwards has jettisoned the polite and unthreatening populism of his 2004 presidential campaign for a sharper edge. The beaming smile, the bluejeans and the open-collar shirt are still a constant. But the "Two Americas" message has been replaced by one America, and it's time, he says, to take that America back.
"I know some people suggest we'll be able to sit at the table with drug companies and oil companies and think they can get their power away. Right," Edwards said dismissively, indirectly referring to the approaches he says Obama and Clinton would take.
"I'll tell you when they'll [corporations] lose their power: when we take it away from them," he told a cheering crowd at the Grinnell Eagles Club.
This is reminiscent of old-time class warfare, and it's tough stuff in Iowa, a state that prides itself on thoughtful consideration of candidates. In 2004, Iowa caucusgoers rejected the confrontational tone of Howard Dean, who had led in polls. The sunny Edwards almost won the state four years ago, finishing second behind Sen. John Kerry.
'There's been a change'
But this is a different time, Edwards said in an interview.
"There's been a change in America. We have greater concentration of wealth and power in a few. We have an increasingly dysfunctional health-care system. We have this war in Iraq that has gotten much worse," he said. "I think we need a president who's willing to be tough and to go after these things."
Exit polls from 2004 indicated that more than 40 percent of caucusgoers made up their minds during the final week of the campaign. And recent polls show greater public concerns about issues that play to Edwards' strengths: the economy and health care.
Heather Benesh, a factory worker in Grinnell, thought she had her mind made up three months ago, backing Obama. Now she's undecided. Her husband, Blane, a computer programmer, said he's leaning toward Obama. But neither is committed right now.
At a town hall-style meeting in Des Moines, youth counselor Robin Heinemann said she liked Edwards' remarks about poverty and appreciates the sharper edge to his message.
"John Edwards and Barack Obama are tied right now," Heinemann said. She wonders who is the more electable.
In Iowa City, Sam Osborne, a retired professor and newspaper editor, said the new Edwards is "genuine. ... It's from the gut."
Edwards' Iowa run is often described as the final argument for this veteran trial lawyer, who has spent more time in Iowa than any other Democratic candidate. He peaked in the polls early this year in Iowa and has slipped since then, although he has stayed within striking distance. If he does not win or finish close to the top, political analysts say, his campaign will be crippled.
Mike McMahon, the former Democratic Party chairman in Delaware County, declined to speculate on the effect of an Edwards loss but said, "We need to do well, so Iowa is a springboard for him."
Edwards campaigned Friday in northeastern Iowa, accompanied by his wife, Elizabeth, two of his children and his parents. At another town hall-style meeting in a steakhouse, the talking points roll off his tongue: universal health care, out of Iraq by the end of 2009, no more sweetheart deals for the big corporations and stop the one-way trade agreements that hurt middle-class Americans.
Then he added, "It's not enough to be nice."