Iowa ’04: Edwards struts his stump

By Isaac Wolf

DES MOINES—On a Sunday afternoon stop at Drake University, presidential hopeful John Edwards bounced onstage to the chant, “Go, John, go!”

Pumping his fists to the uproarious applause of a packed auditorium and nodding appropriately to milk the ensuing cheers, John Edwards showed he knows how to work a crowd.

He leaned slightly forward as he spoke, the look of someone hungry, and his Southern drawl helped smooth over his slick presentation. He twisted his body and pivoted outward, finding a way to face front-and-center to everyone in the audience from the corner of an overflowing crowd. But perhaps most importantly, he alternated between strikes against Bush policies and reminders that the Democratic Party is one of unity, focusing on the theme of two different Americas—one of over-represented elites and one of “the rest of us.”

Edwards, a successful trial-lawyer-turned-U.S.-senator, distinguished himself in the basic campaign talk—called a stump speech—with his exquisitely polished public speaking skills. The two themes run together through the mantra of “two different Americas.”

“We have two different Americas: One of money and power, and one for everybody else,” Edwards said. He spoke about how he would work to establish a universal healthcare policy. “We will not have two systems—for those that can afford the best and one for everybody else.”

Using charisma to sell himself as the positive candidate has worked well for Edwards. The strategy has made him a very competitive candidate in Iowa, and some explain his climb through the polls by comparing him to the appealing JFK. But the comparison is a double-edged sword; like Kennedy, who became president at 43, the 50-year-old Edwards faces the criticism that he is too young and inexperienced for the seat of the presidency.

Edwards addressed the criticism, preemptively, in his speech, calling himself a Washington outsider. He argued that there is little reason to conclude that career politicians would be more effective than him, and that his highly successful background in law and time in politics qualifies him for office.

“We will restore the power of this democracy back to you,” he said.

While refraining, in large part, from directly criticizing the other democratic hopefuls, Edwards differentiates himself by offering a thorough outline of his policy proposals. This effort includes a detailed booklet entitled “Real Solutions for America,” which outlines policy initiatives in economics, domestic defense, and international relations, among other topics.

“This is not a pie in the sky,” Edwards said, holding up a copy of the 55-page booklet that he took from a member of the crowd. “I have laid out a clear vision.”

One example of Edwards’s detailed proposals concerns education. Edwards calls for a refocusing of funds on grade-school students—including doubling the federal government’s $3 billion annual budget for training teachers—as well as a year of free tuition to public universities and community colleges for all students. The free tuition will be paid for by 10 weekly hours of community service or work.

In his speech, Edwards spoke of his job during college: unloading tractor-trailers. “Let me tell you, spending the night unloading trucks—that made you want to study hard the next day,” he said.

“America was built by optimists, not pessimists,” Edwards said. “If you’re looking for the candidate who will do the best job of attacking and sniping the other candidates, it’s not me. It’s about lifting up the American people and making them believe. It’s based on the politics of hope.”