Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards speaks to supporters and students at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va. on Wednesday.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 2/5/2004 8:40:23 PM ET 2004-02-06T01:40:23

What is the road map for North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as he tries to overtake Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination?

By winning primaries in the next two weeks, Edwards might be able to undermine the assumption that Kerry’s trajectory is taking him to this summer’s Democratic convention as the presumptive nominee.

For Edwards, finishing second in this Saturday’s Michigan party-run primary and in the Wisconsin primary on Feb. 17 may not be enough to change the psychology of the race.

The last time there was a multi-candidate Democratic primary contest, in 1992, Bill Clinton built on convincing wins in Southern states in the first two weeks of March to vault to victories in Illinois and Michigan on March 17.

Edwards may need to do something similar this time in order to win.

But the momentum seems to be on Kerry’s side. In the past 10 days, Kerry has garnered the endorsements of several “superdelegates” (office holders who have an automatic vote at the Democratic convention) as the professionals size up the race and decide that Kerry is likely to win the nomination.

On Thursday, Maine Gov. John Baldacci and Michigan Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow threw their weight behind Kerry. On Friday, Rep. Dick Gephardt, who dropped out of the running after the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, will announce his backing of Kerry.

Michigan Democrats vote Saturday, while Maine Democrats conduct their caucuses on Sunday.

With his victory this week in South Carolina, Edwards has already proven he can win in the South. If he wins Tuesday’s primaries in Tennessee and Virginia, it would not stop Kerry in his tracks.

On the other hand, if Edwards were to lose Virginia and Tennessee on Tuesday, it would call into question his claim to be the only Democratic contender who can carry some of the Southern states in the fall.

Must win in Tennessee
“I think he has to win in Tennessee,” said Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Randy Button, who is neutral in the race. “I’ve been saying Tennessee is the pivotal state. It’s the Tennessee Thunder Dome: Three come in, but only one will be left standing.”

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Button’s argument is that Tennessee, which President Bush carried with 51 percent of the vote in 2000, is a good microcosm of the national electorate.

“We are the first Southern battleground state,” he said.

"Edwards absolutely needs to win more primaries, that's not even the question," said Democratic strategist Jenny Backus, who is not working for any of the contenders. Even without an outright win in one or two primaries, she said, "Edwards needs to look like he's continually making forward progress."

Backus added that "the only question mark for Kerry is in the South." If Kerry won Tennessee or Virginia next week, he'd dispel some of the doubts about his appeal in Dixie.

Edwards victories in Virginia, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — and perhaps nothing short of that trifecta — would change the dynamic of the race. (The same theory holds true for retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who edged Edwards by a slim margin in the Oklahoma primary on Tuesday night.)

What's the rationale for a Democratic voter to prefer Edwards over Kerry?

Edwards put it this way in his interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on Tuesday night, “We have policy differences. For example, we have policy differences on trade. I opposed NAFTA. I have opposed a number of trade agreements. Senator Kerry has taken different positions on that issue.”

Edwards, a former personal injury lawyer who was elected to the Senate in 1998, also said he did not accept campaign contributions from lobbyists and called for a ban on such contributions.

He added a biographical note as well: “Because of my own life experience, I understand very personally the problems that most working families face. I grew up in a working family, and I've been representing them most of my life.”

Edwards’ voting record as a senator is not markedly different from Kerry's.

Edwards’ rating this year from the Democratic-allied League of Conservation Voters (which has endorsed Kerry) was 68 out of 100, while Kerry’s LCV rating was 92.

On labor issues, Edwards has a near-perfect 96 out of 100 lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO labor union confederation, edging Kerry, who has a lifetime 90 rating.

The leading abortion rights group, NARAL Pro-Choice America, gives Edwards and Kerry identical 100 ratings.

China trade issue
Seeking to highlight his differences with Kerry, Edwards says he is opposed to the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement. But he voted for the 2000 China trade deal that paved the way for China to join the Word Trade Organization.

According to the American Textile Manufacturers Institute, the trade association for the American textile industry, over just the last 12 months, China has increased its exports of textiles to the United States by 85 percent while 49,000 U.S. textile workers have lost their jobs.

Edwards said Thursday on the campaign trail in Tennessee that he would oppose any future trade agreements that do not include enforceable labor and environmental standards. He also vowed to end China’s manipulation of the value of its currency, which American competitors say helps China undersell American-made products.

Even though Edwards has railed against the power of special interests in Washington, he is a former member of one of the most powerful special interest groups, the trial lawyers. Last October Senate Democratic allies of the trial lawyers were able to defeat a bill which would have imposed limits on class-action lawsuits involving large numbers of plaintiffs by requiring that they be tried in federal court rather than state court.

Edwards, on the campaign trail, missed that vote, but said last summer at a meeting of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America (ATLA), "I'm proud of what I did for 20 years. You should be proud of what you do, giving voice to people who have no voice."

But Kerry, too, spoke to the ATLA meeting and he too voted for the China trade accord, so there’s little room for him to outflank Edwards on these issues.

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