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Edwards, Obama vie: same towns, same voters

With time running out before the first-in-the-nation Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa, John Edwards is sharpening his case against Sen. Barack Obama
Image: Dennis Pearson, an Obama supporter in Manchester, Iowa
"He may not have the experience, but I think he can inspire people," said Dennis Pearson, an Obama fan who came to see the candidate in Manchester, Iowa Friday.Tom Curry,
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Vote for John Edwards or Barack Obama? Obama or Edwards?

The two rivals crisscrossed eastern Iowa this weekend, courting many of the same voters, often following each other to the same cities and towns.

At one point on Friday Edwards started speaking at a steakhouse in the town of Manchester 40 minutes before Obama started his pitch to another crowd two miles away at the community center.

Some in the Edwards crowd left his event early so they could go see Obama and do some comparison shopping.

With time running out before the first-in-the-nation Jan. 3 caucuses in this state, Edwards is sharpening his case against Obama.

When a Democrat in Manchester asked Edwards why he should vote for him rather than Obama, Edwards answered: “We have a very different approach in the way we deal with special interests.”

“I’m not being critical,” he insisted, but then explained that Obama “talks about bringing people together… he talks about bringing drug companies, oil companies, insurance companies, etc. to the table and working with them and negotiating a compromise. I just think that will never work.”

'You need a fighter'
He added, “This is a tough fight — and you need a fighter as president. You need somebody who is ready for this battle and I’ve been fighting these people my whole life and winning my whole life.”

Earlier Edwards had told the crowd, “It’s not enough to be nice… You can’t charm them away” — “them” being the corporate interests and lobbyists that he rails against in every speech.

The implication was: the mellow and charming Obama isn’t tough enough, is not a fighter.

At his Iowa stops, Obama draws more novices and a few self-described Republicans; Edwards draws on a loyal core of traditional Democrats who backed him four years ago in the caucuses, or wish that they had.

“He’s a person who can go into any district anywhere across the nation and win,” contended Edwards supporter Mike McMahon in Manchester. McMahon argues that the Democrats would have beaten President Bush in 2004 if Edwards had been at the top of the ticket, rather than the vice presidential candidate.

“Edwards has already run in a red state and won. He could go into any red state or red district and put his arm around a congressional candidate. We need more than a win, we need a mandate if we want change on health care and Iraq and all these other issues,” he added.

Bud Pratte, a dentist from Waterville, went to the small town of Elkader Friday night to hear Edwards speak. Pratte, who backed Edwards four years ago, called himself “totally committed” to him. “He doesn’t have the negatives that Clinton and Obama would have.”

Obama's negatives
What are Obama’s negatives? “I don’t see the sincerity; I don’t think he speaks with enough experience really…. I don’t think he’s ready yet,” Pratte said. He suggested Obama might be “a good vice presidential candidate for John.”

Some Obama supporters say Edwards is their second choice.

And this could turn out to be crucial in deciding the winner here: under Democratic caucus rules, if a candidate fails to attain 15 percent backing in a precinct, his supporters must shift to another candidate if they want their presence on caucus night to count.

One Obama fan who said Edwards is her second choice is Tina Vondran of Monticello, a town of 3,728, where Obama spoke Friday.

Vondran’s husband is the manager of an injection molding plastic manufacturing company in Monticello, so during the question-and-answer period she asked Obama about the threat of jobs being lost because U.S. corporations prefer cheap suppliers in China rather firms like her husband’s.

Vondran is new to caucus politics: she sometimes refers to Obama as “Sen. Baracka” and said for the first time in her life she is attending candidate events and thinking of participating in the caucuses.

“Each time I’ve seen him, I’ve been a little bit more impressed,” she said after seeing Obama Friday in Monticello.

“I’m not sure exactly what his policies are, or what he has done in the past, or what committees he’s been on, but I do believe at this point in time we do need a change,” she said. “I just feel when I listen to him and when I see the way he expresses himself, I believe he’s sincere, I believe he’s genuine and that goes an awful long way with me.”

Why a Republican backs Obama
“He seems to be an honest, sincere person who will bring back some sincerity to the presidency,” said Dennis Pearson, a self-described Republican who heard Obama at his stop in Manchester. “He instills in me a hope that there can be some change…. He may not have the experience, but I think he can inspire people.”

Pearson, who owns a heating and air conditioning business in Manchester, said, “I’ve been a Republican my whole life” and voted for Bush in 2004, but sometimes votes for Democrats.

About Edwards, Pearson said, “The problem I have with John Edwards is that all I’m hearing him say is ‘I’ve spent 35 years fighting corporations.’ It’s a campaign thing – they’re all fighting the bad guys.”

Image: Abraham Funchess, an Obama supporter in Manchester, Iowa

Abraham Funchess, a pastor at the Jubilee United Methodist Church in Waterloo, has met privately in small groups with Obama three times and will be backing him on caucus night, the first caucus he’ll ever have taken part in.

“There’s a new sense of urgency, as the candidate said today,” Funchess said after hearing Obama speak in Waterloo on Saturday. “This whole element of ‘the fierceness of now,’ the urgency of now. I don’t want to waste this opportunity to have an impact on who will be the new leader in the free world.”

Asked about former president Clinton’s critique of Obama as relatively inexperienced, Funchess said what many Obama supporters say: “If we have someone in there with that intelligence, he can attract the right policy advisors. We need a president who knows how to dialogue with both our friends and our adversaries.”

He added that he is also impressed with Edwards, “particularly his emphasis on the working class and the poor.’

If an undecided voter wants to look to the Edwards and Obama rhetoric as a way of choosing between the two men, there’s little to choose from.

The lines from their stump speeches often are interchangeable:

  • “People are tired of economic policies that seem to always favor the wealthy and the powerful, so that a CEO makes more in ten minutes than ordinary Americans make in a year and the CEOs are getting the tax breaks.”
  • “Why does our tax code continue to create more tax breaks for the wealthiest people in America and for the multinational corporations, while working families are left behind constantly? Because the corporations and the wealthy have so much power and lobbying presence in Washington that they get what they want.”
  • “I’m running to tell the lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over.”

Those quotations came from the rivals’ weekend campaign stops in this order: Obama, Edwards, Obama.

But in contrast to Obama, Edwards’s vision of the economy is often bleak, a vision of people in the grip of sinister forces, the corporations and their lobbyists.

“I’m telling you: these people are controlling what happens!” Edwards told a crowd at the Opera House in Elkader Friday night. “They are controlling everything that happens.” He urged the crowd to “reclaim this democracy — it doesn’t belong to them.”

The outcome here in Iowa may well be decided by which tone voters prefer: the heated populism of Edwards, or the more mellow populism of Obama.