Meet the Press   |  October 06, 2007

Edwards: Ready to take on the presidency

Oct. 7: Former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., speaks to Tim Russert about why he believes he's a stronger presidential candidate than Democratic front-runners Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

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MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: National polls show a clear front runner. But in the critical state of Iowa it's a much closer race, with just 13 weeks to go to the Iowa Caucuses . Why does John Edwards believe he would be a stronger nominee than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama ? We'll ask him. Our guest, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards .

Then, the money primary making news, and the Republicans prepare for their Tuesday debate. Insights and analysis from David Broder of The Washington Post , David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network , Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News and Ted Koppel of the Discovery Channel .

And 50 years ago this week, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the race to space began. Joining us, the man who has covered every American manned space flight , and the author of " Live From Cape Canaveral ," NBC 's Jay Barbree .

But first, he is in Iowa this morning, a make or break state for his campaign .

Senator John Edwards , welcome.

FMR. SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC): Thank you, Tim .

MR. RUSSERT: A week ago Wednesday in the New Hampshire debate, Democrats woke up the next morning, I think somewhat surprised that the three top candidates, Hillary Clinton , Barack Obama and John Edwards , all said that they could not pledge that all American troops would be out of Iraq by the end of their first term in 2013 . Another one of your opponents, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico , issued this statement about you. He says, " Edwards says" "he would get all of the combat troops out of Iraq , but he would leave behind thousands of non- combat troops in the middle of a civil war ." This "is not ending the war... Leaving behind thousands of non- combat troops contradicts Army doctrine and common sense . It is simply irresponsible. ... History teaches us that putting undermanned forces in the middle of sectarian conflict, whether in Somalia , Lebanon or anywhere" "is a recipe for disaster. John Edwards would change the mission. I," Richardson , "will end the war."

Is he correct?

SEN. EDWARDS: No, of course he's not correct. They will -- unless we're going to close the embassy in Baghdad and have the only American embassy in the world that we provide no protection for, there'd have to be some troops in Baghdad for purposes of protecting the embassy. Now, what I've also said that is also ignored in that statement is that we do need to maintain quick reaction forces just outside of Iraq .

Now, there are some real differences between myself and Senator Clinton on this issue. I am not for maintaining troops -- combat troops -- inside Iraq , for a lot of reasons. I think number one, they'll have a target on their forehead while they're there. Number two, it continues the perception that America is occupying Iraq . What I would do instead is outside of Iraq , probably in Kuwait , maintain a quick reaction force . And that quick reaction force would be focused on the possibility of al-Qaeda operations, not terrorism at large. The problem with what I hear with Senator Clinton saying, and I've heard others say is when you talk about maintaining troops , combat troops inside Iraq , based there, and they're focused on anti-terrorism activity within Iraq ,

that's very similar to what President Bush says. It's very hard to understand what -- where that ends, where the limits are.

I do think we need to end this war in Iraq . I'm for getting our combat troops out of Iraq . I'm going to be responsible and protect the embassy like we do everywhere else in the world, but we will maintain a quick reaction force just outside of Iraq in Kuwait , so that if there are al-Qaeda -- let me be very specific, not general terrorist activity. I mean, terrorist activity can include any sort of action against civilians and against the state. I'm talking specifically about public enemy number one, al-Qaeda , that's responsible for a small percentage of the insurgent activity in Iraq .

MR. RUSSERT: But as I hear you, you would have significant combat troops outside of Iraq but on the border prepared to go into Iraq for combat duty?

SEN. EDWARDS: But I want to be really clear about something, Tim . I'm saying something very different than what Senator Clinton 's saying. Senator Clinton has said she will maintain troops inside Iraq , and that they will engage in combat operation, combat missions , I think is her term, inside Iraq . I will not do that. To me, that is a continuation of the war, and this war needs to be brought to an end. I do think that America , like we would anywhere else in the world, is focused on al-Qaeda , focused on public enemy number one, and we have to be ready to respond if they're planning attacks inside Iraq , attacks against us or our embassy inside Iraq , or attacks outside of Iraq . We have to be prepared to respond to that, and that's why I'd keep a quick reaction force in Kuwait . But I would not, as Senator Clinton would, keep combat troops inside Iraq and continue combat missions in Iraq .

I want to be able to say next fall, when I'm the Democratic nominee, and I'm standing with the Republican candidate, that Americans have a very clear choice. They can choose a Republican who wants to continue the war or a Democrat who wants to end the war. We can't just be a little bit better than them. We have to be very clear that voters have choices in this election.

MR. RUSSERT: And Senator , your evolution on the war in Iraq is quite extraordinary. You were an original co-sponsor back in October of 2002 , voting for the war. When you were running for vice president, October of 2004 , even though we had not found weapons of mass destruction , you still said your vote was the right course to pursue. And in February of this year, you were on MEET THE PRESS , I asked you if you would cut off funding for the war in Iraq , and you said no. You now are in favor of cutting off funding, aren't you?

SEN. EDWARDS: No, sir. No. I'm saying the same thing now I said in February. What I have said all throughout the course of this campaign is what we need to do and what the Congress needs to do is they need to force George Bush 's hand. I think the American people sent an absolutely clear mandate in November of 2006 that they expect the Congress to stand strong, to be firm. And the way for the Congress to do that is to ensure that every funding bill that goes to this president actually has a timetable for withdrawal. And if Bush vetoes that, they should send another bill for the timetable for withdrawal and they should stand their ground. There's a difference between doing that, Tim , and just cutting off funding for the troops .

MR. RUSSERT: So you would not cut off funding, and if funding ran out because George Bush kept vetoing the funding measures, what would you do?

SEN. EDWARDS: If I were president, I would've already been bringing the troops out. If George Bush is still president, then he'll be in the position of either having to sign the legislation, which means he'll have to meet the timetable for withdrawal, or the money will dry up and he'll have to start withdrawing troops out of Iraq . Either way , the Congress has done exactly what the American people asked them to do in November of 2006 , which is what they should do.

MR. RUSSERT: There's been an interesting discussion about John Edwards . Here's how U.S. News World Report wrote it, "The Evolution of John Edwards ." And they say this:

Edward is -- " Edwards has changed considerably from the happy-face centrist who refrained from attack politics in '04. His appeal today is based in large part on his sharp-edged anti war stand. ... This cycle, Edwards hopes to ride a wave of liberal anger and generalized dissatisfaction."

And then this from the Associated Press : "Analysis: Is Edwards Real or a Phony ?"

" Edwards ... ran as a moderate Democrat for the Senate in 1998 and the White House in 2004 , calling universal healthcare policies irresponsible," "impractical. Now he's more liberal, shifting to the left along with Internet -fed forces within the Democratic Party , and vows to give healthcare to all."

Have you shifted your views for political expediency, or has been there, has been there, has there been a profound, philosophical change within you?

SEN. EDWARDS: I'm exactly the same person that I was in 2004 . I run for president for exactly the same reason. You know, I run for president, Tim , on behalf of the, my father, who worked in a mill all his life, the men and the women who worked in the mill with him, the men and women I grew up with who lost their jobs when that mill closed. Providing that kind of chance and opportunity to everybody is at the core of, is the core of why I'm running for president of the United States . That has never changed, and it is exactly the same today.

I do believe that there's been some changes both in America and in the world. The war in Iraq is much worse than it was in 2003 and 2004 , and it's continued. Our healthcare situation is dysfunctional. It does not work. And I am convinced that the only solution to this is true, universal healthcare .

Global warming is now, by anybody's measure, a crisis. A crisis that America has to deal with and has to respond to. We have five million more people who've fallen into poverty while George Bush has been in office. And we're becoming a country made up of just a few rich people and everybody else. What I believe, and I believe it to my soul, is that these problems cannot be solved with small incremental change . They can't be solved with caution. We need big, bold ideas. We need a president who's willing to take on a system that stops those bold ideas from going into place and that's exactly what I intend to do as president.

MR. RUSSERT: A new poll out in Des Moines today shows you second place to Hillary Clinton . But half the voters in Iowa believe that there may be a contradiction between your lifestyle and that it undermines your credibility. This is voters from Iowa saying this. One of the things that's been discussed is this:" Hedge Fund Ties Help Edwards Campaign ." "Two years ago, former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina , gearing up for his second run at the Democratic

presidential nomination, gave a speech decrying the `two different economies in the country: one for wealthy insiders and then one for everybody else.'

"Four months later, he began working for the kind of firm that to many Wall Street critics embodies the economy of wealthy insiders a hedge fund . Edwards became a consultant for Fortress Investment Group . ..."

"It was an unusual choice of employment for Edwards , who for years has decried offshore tax shelters as part of his broader campaign to reduce inequality. While Fortress was incorporated in Delaware , its hedge funds were incorporated in the Cayman Islands , enabling its partners and foreign investors to defer or avoid paying U.S. taxes."

Why would you associate yourself with a hedge fund like that, when you're decrying the existence of two Americas ?

SEN. EDWARDS: I think this is a perfectly fair question. And let me answer it. First of all, I was the first candidate, Democrat or Republican, to lay out an aggressive plan to get rid of the tax breaks that are available, including the offshoring that you just spoke about, that are available to hedge fund managers. They're not right, they're not fair, and they don't -- are not available to ordinary Americans like the ones I spoke about just a few minutes ago.

Number two. If you look at what I have spent my life doing, including the time since the last election -- which is exactly you're focused on right now -- I did a whole variety of things. Number one, I ran a poverty center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill , which I started; I traveled the country, helping raise the minimum wage in six different states ; I was personally involved in 20 -- with 23 unions in organizing campaigns, organizing thousands of workers into unions. My wife, Elizabeth , and I started a college-for-everyone program, for kids who are willing to work when they were in school to be able to go to college; I personally did humanitarian work in Africa .

These are the things that I spent my time doing, and I don't apologize for them. I'm proud of what I've spent my life doing. I -- my whole life and the arc of my life has been about one single thing, which is to try to make sure that everybody in this country has the same kind of chance that and opportunity that I've had. And that's why I want to be president of the United States .

MR. RUSSERT: But working for a hedge fund that has foreclosed on mortgages in Louisiana , is that the kind of image that you want to put forward in a presidential campaign ?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, when I -- first of all, when I found out that there were foreclosures going on in Louisiana , in New Orleans , which is specifically what you're asking about, I responded immediately. Called the people at Fortress , told them that they needed to take action. I thereafter took any investments that I had in those -- in that operation out. On top of that, we have started a fund, a home rescue fund, with a local community activist group in New Orleans to actually provide help to people who are having their homes foreclosed on in New Orleans . My point is really not complicated. If you look at where I have spent my time, and what my life has been about, instead of isolating one thing in a short period of time, it is very clear what my life has been about. I have spent my life fighting for the kind of people I grew up with, for the poor, for

the disenfranchised, and I will do it as long as I'm living. I will do it when I'm president, and I will do it when I'm an ex-president.

MR. RUSSERT: The exchanges between the Edwards campaign and the Clinton campaign have gotten quite pointed in recent days. I want to ask you about this one." Edwards plays the Bubba card." "The official name of this campaign swing is `economic fairness for the North Country ,' but [ Edwards campaign consultant David ` Mudcat' Saunders ] ... and the boys call it `let's help John Edwards screw those who screwed us tour,' Mudcat says. Us being rural America ."

"And who would that be?"

"`Who screwed us?'" Saunders "asks, voice rising in incredulity. ` The Clintons screwed us.'"

How did the Clintons screw us?

SEN. EDWARDS: Well, Mudcat has, has a way of saying things that I wouldn't say exactly the way he does. What I would say is that the system in Washington where corporations, big corporations and their lobbyists have entirely too much influence, has resulted in rural Americans , ordinary Americans being left behind . And my view is that we have to have -- we have to change that system to bring about the substantiative change for real people to have the opportunities that they need.

Now, I think the system's rigged. I don't think status quo works, and I think we have to be willing to take it on. And I've said repeatedly, and this is similar to what Mudcat just said, I believe we cannot replace a group of corporate Republicans with a group of corporate Democrats . We have to actually return the power in the government to ordinary Americans . And that -- and the reason that matters is not in the abstract, you know. Lobbyists, the way the system works in Washington , that's all process. But the reason it matters is because it's -- those things stand as an impediment to universal healthcare , to attacking global warming , to addressing economic inequality in this, in this country. It, it -- they stand as an impediment to stopping the kind of private contracting of Blackwater that we've seen in, in Iraq . All that has to change in order for us to be able to help the very people that, that I'm talking about, and Mudcat 's talking about.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you something else that Mudcat said, and ask you if it's your view."The toxic coattails of Hillary Clinton could not only cost us an absolute certainty at the White House , but it also could cost us the U.S. House of Representatives . ... Not only do we lose the White House , but the collateral damage from Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket could cost us Congress ." Do you agree?

SEN. EDWARDS: Here's what I think. I am the candidate running for president on the Democratic side who's actually won an election in a red state running against the Jessie Helms political machine . I know what you have to do to win in battleground states , and to win in tough, tough congressional districts , and what you have to do to put out your message that works in those kind of places. People -- I understand people who vote in those places, and they connect and relate to me. So I do believe when I am the Democratic nominee for president that there is no place in America that I can't go and campaign and help our congressional candidates and help our Senate candidates.

I think at the end of the day it's for voters to determine what impact Senator Clinton would have. But I think there are clear choices between the two of us. I've been elected in a red state , I believe that, at least based on the empirical data that's out there, indicates that I am the strongest candidate on the Democratic side in these battleground areas, in these battleground states . And I think that does matter for a very simple reason, because I am strongly in favor, as president, of pushing a, a progressive agenda. If we want big ideas , if we want to change the system, if we want the kind of things I've talked about universal healthcare , attacking global warming in a serious, serious way, dealing with income, all those things, if we want to do those things, we need to strengthen our numbers, the Democratic numbers, in the House and the Senate . And I am completely convinced that I can do that.

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator , do you believe, like your top -- one of your top advisers said, that Hillary Clinton would lose the presidency and very well lose the Congress for the Democrats ?

SEN. EDWARDS: I honestly don't know the answer to that. I mean, I think there's a lot of conflict out there about that question. That's a question Senator Clinton should have to answer. I think voters are going to have to make that determination. But I think I -- right now, that's an unknown.

MR. RUSSERT: But other people, including your wife, Elizabeth , have made these kinds of suggestions. It's the elephant in the room . Let me read what Elizabeth said."I do not"...

SEN. EDWARDS: Sure.

MR. RUSSERT: ..."think the hatred against Hillary Clinton is justified. I don't know where it comes from. I don't begin to understand it. But you can't pretend it doesn't exist, and it will energize the Republican base. Their nominee won't energize them, Bush won't, but Hillary as the nominee will. It's hard for John to talk about, but it's the reality." Why is it hard for you to talk about?

SEN. EDWARDS: No, I think -- what you just said is different from what you asked me just a minute ago. What you said about Elizabeth 's statement I think is true. I hear a lot of those things when I'm out on the campaign trail. People -- I, I don't want to ignore the first part of what she said. She's not saying it's fair, she's just saying that it is out there in America . And I hear the same things over and over and over. What I think is impossible to predict is how that plays itself out during the course of a presidential campaign .

I've lived through a presidential campaign . What I know is that voters have a very clear choice. Democratic voters have a very clear choice between Senator Clinton , with both all the good and bad that comes with her, and John Edwards , who has actually won in a red state and who can compete every single place in America . And we cannot lose this election. This is not about me, it's not about Senator Clinton . It doesn't matter what happens to us, personally. Our lives are going to be fine. The question is, what's going to happen to 47 million Americans who have no healthcare coverage. What's going to happen to women who are diagnosed with breast cancer like Elizabeth and have a 30 to 50 percent greater chance of dying because they have no healthcare coverage. What's going to happen to families who are sending their children to serve in Iraq and possibly die in Iraq .

We cannot lose this election. There is too much at stake. And I think it's important for Democratic primary voters to know simply that they have choices. I'm not saying anything bad about Senator Clinton . She's a good candidate. But there are clear choices between Senator Clinton and myself, and I want voters to know that.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Clinton and Senator Obama have both out raised you in terms of campaign finance and fund-raising. You have now opted for public financing . The DailyKos Web site has said this makes you a very dangerous candidate because between the time that primaries are over and the conventions start, you'll only have about $40 million to spend to ward off Republican attacks. That -- and this is one of the reasons why you should not be the nominee, because you'd be in such a weakened position.

SEN. EDWARDS: Do you want me to respond?

MR. RUSSERT: Please.

SEN. EDWARDS: I -- this is going to be an election, Tim , it's not going to be an auction. You know, we're not going to determine who can raise the most money and thereby who should be president of the United States . It's an amazing thing to me that when you do something that you believe is right, same thing I did in 2003 and 2004 , that this is the response. What I know is true, I know that when we get to after February 5 and it's pretty clear who the Democratic nominee for president's going to be, that there needs to be absolutely clear divisions between me as the Democratic nominee and the Republicans .

And I am completely convinced if I have, and I believe I will, beaten two celebrity candidates who will probably have spent over $200 million during the course of the nomination process, I can certainly beat a Republican who's carrying George Bush 's baggage. And the way I will do it is not on the basis of money, but on the basis of what America needs, on the basis of principle stand, on the basis of big and bold ideas. I want people to see clear differences between me and them, them being the Republicans in this case. They will be awash in corporate money. You can take that to the bank. I will not.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator John Edwards , as always, we thank you for your views and be safe on the campaign trail.

SEN. EDWARDS: Tim , thank you so much.