January 6, 2008

2 days in NH, part 1: Seabiscuit

“How many of you don’t have health care!”Crickets.It’s 6:15 A.M., about as cold as you’d expect from Manchester, New Hampshire in the first week of January, and Senator John Edwards’ advance man is doing his best to warm up the room. Three quick minutes off the Everett Turnpike, in the third floor of an office complex turned campaign stop turned full fledged zoo, we’re packed in like canned tuna as we await Edwards’ first public appearance since grabbing second place in the previous evening’s Iowa caucuses. The metal beams overhead, sprinkled with patches of rust, and the steelworkers on stage clad in “Steelworkers for Edwards” sweatshirts provide a blue-collar backdrop for a campaign that feeds off an enthusiastic, if somewhat contrived, populist ethic. But at 6:15 on a Friday, it takes a lot more than cozy accommodations and Union-made garments to fire up a grassroots rally, which is why, a good 30 minutes before the Senator and his wife arrive, Paulie grabs the mic from his embattled colleague.An African-American male in his mid 20s, Paulie has worked on each of the two “Edwards for President” campaigns in essentially the same role—as John Edwards’s warmup act. Today this means bringing out a little girl named “Fiona” to lead the crowd in a rendition of “E-D-W-A-R-D-S! Oh yes! ‘Cause John is best” (repeat until desired results are achieved), and giving shout-outs, in no particular order, to the steelworkers, teachers, students, and seniors who have gathered at this morning’s “Graniteroots rally.”It works. By the time Elizabeth and Cate Edwards are introduced, the crowd greets her loudly and supportively before she gets to the podium.Everyone seems to like Elizabeth Edwards, and it’s easy to see why. She’s down to earth and bubbly, and when she equates her husband with Seabiscuit in her remarks, it at least seems authentic and a little endearing. I’d definitely vote for her for Aunt. At the same time, it’s indicative of the lag between politics and popular culture (more on that later) that she compared the campaign to a book/movie that came out some three years ago.John Edwards, greeted with a hero’s welcome, is not in vintage form by any means. His voice cracks on multiple occasions as the strain of the late rush through Iowa and sleep deprivation takes its toll. But he feeds off the crowd better than most candidates, speaking in a manner that implores them to pick up the slack and lead the cheers: carefully enunciated phrases—about jobs, or health care, or Iraq—punctuated by chants from the crowd. It’s at these moments that the humble, son-of-a-millworker persona he tries to present gives way to a cheesier, cockier image as he calculates the right moment to interrupt his supporters with another round of rhetoric.More than any other candidate, Edwards’s appeal is less about substance and more about personality. He is the champion for the working class, and he will do everything in his power to stand up for them—suspend trade negotiations, prevent outsourcing, give everyone essential services—and shouldn’t that be enough? He can give you specifics if you want, but for most it’s the tone that carries the argument: he will fight for you. The 2008 stump speech can’t compare to 2004’s “Two Americas,” but it’s infectious nonetheless.While his wife spins the Iowa results as “Seabiscuit,” Edwards seizes the opportunity to say that, yes, the cacuses were a vote for change, but that he, more so than Obama, can…be the change. Despite finishing eight points behind, he tries to claim victory by latching himself on to the victorious cause. Fifteen minutes after he’s introduced, Edwards ends his speech, shakes some hands, and we leave.