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How will Edwards run against Kerry?

With Sen. John Edwards' win in South Carolina, a crucial questions now arises for the Edwards campaign: Are there significant differences between Edwards and front-runner Sen. John Kerry on the issues that Edwards could use as the lever to pry Democratic voters away from Kerry?
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., revels in his victory in the South Carolina primary rally on Tuesday night in Columbia, S.C.Charlie Neibergall / AP
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Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s victories in the Missouri, Arizona and Delaware primaries and in the North Dakota caucuses, on top of his triumphs in the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses and in last week’s New Hampshire primary, prove conclusively that he is a candidate with broad appeal to Democratic voters across the nation.

Conversely, Howard Dean, anointed last fall by the news media as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination on the strength of his fund-raising success, failed to convince rank-and-file Democrats in the seven states that voted Tuesday that he is presidential timber.

Dean, the man who said he could use issues such as health insurance to appeal to Southern whites who display Confederate flag decals on their pickup trucks, eked out a mere five percent of the vote in South Carolina.

Edwards vs. Kerry?
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards came through with a rousing must-win victory in South Carolina and is clearly plausible as Kerry’s rival if the race resolves itself to a two-man contest.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark appeared to squeak by to a narrow victory in Oklahoma, although it is worth noting that Clark fared poorly in South Carolina with about seven percent and in Missouri with five percent.

Crucial questions now arise for the Edwards campaign: Are there significant differences between Edwards and Kerry on the issues, differences that Edwards could use as the lever to pry Democratic voters away from Kerry?

At first blush it appears that the two senators have quite similar voting records. Both men voted, for instance:

  • For the Iraq war resolution in October of 2002.
  • Against President Bush’s October 2003 request for $87 billion to continue funding the Iraq operation.
  • Against the confirmation of John Ashcroft as attorney general.
  • Against finding President Clinton guilty of impeachment charges.
  • For the filibuster that blocked the confirmation of Bush appeals court nominee Miguel Estrada.
  • Against a ban on the procedure known as “partial-birth abortion.”
  • For a trade accord with China that is designed to lower each country’s trade barriers to each other’s goods and services. 

When the non-partisan National Journal, the favorite bedtime reading of Washington policy wonks, rated senators on their roll call votes in 2002 on a range of economic, social and foreign policy issues, Edwards got a liberal ranking of 63, which meant that he was more liberal than 63 percent of his colleagues. National Journal ranked Kerry as more liberal than 87 percent of his colleagues.

In the 1999 National Journal ratings, Edwards ranked as more liberal than 72 percent of his colleagues, while Kerry was more liberal than 83 percent of the other senators.

In 2000, both men received identically low 15 out of 100 ratings from Rev. Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition.

Which millionaire?
It seems that if Edwards is to run an anti-Kerry campaign he must do it on something other than ideological grounds. Tuesday’s exit poll data may point Edwards and his strategists in the direction of a personality-driven contrast with Kerry.

Edwards, the son of a textile mill supervisor, pointed in this direction in an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews Tuesday night. "Because of my own life experience I understand very personally the problems that most working families face," Edwards said. "I grew up in a working family and I've been representing them most of my life."

For Democratic voters, the question may be: What kind of millionaire do you want?

Edwards is a self-made millionaire, amassing a fortune estimated at more than $20 million through his work as a plaintiffs’ personal injury attorney.

Kerry both inherited wealth and married into it. His wife Teresa Heinz Kerry is one of America’s wealthiest people, with a fortune in excess of $600 million.

Another crucial question for Edwards: How soon can he demonstrate that he can win somewhere outside the South?

For his fellow Southerner, Bill Clinton, in the 1992 primaries that moment of outside-Dixie credibility came on March 3, “Super Tuesday,” with decisive wins in Illinois and Michigan.

For Edwards, Wisconsin’s primary two weeks from today is a chance to prove himself. 

Dean's Wisconsin hopes
Dean, too, has high hopes for Wisconsin as the state in which can arrest his slide.

He is now zero-for-nine in primary and caucus contests and his candidacy stands on very slippery ground.

He will meet Thursday in Michigan with the heads of the two big labor unions who endorsed him in November, the Service Employees and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Whether and how to continue his candidacy is bound to be the pressing issue for Dean and his allies in the wake of his poor showing Tuesday.

Dean has crafted a short-term strategy that counts on good showings in Washington state and Michigan this Saturday and in Maine's Sunday caucuses, setting the stage for a victory in Wisconsin.

But the question is for how long will Dean's donors be willing to suspend their disbelief in the face of repeated rebuffs by the voters.

For months Dean has contended he would bring in three to four million new voters to the Democratic Party and that they would lift him to victory.

Such voters, if they exist in large numbers, do not seem to be concentrated in the nine states that have voted so far.

Only a few weeks ago Dean said, “If I don't win the nomination, where do you think those million and a half people, half a million on the Internet, where do you think they're going to go? They're certainly not going to vote for a conventional Washington politician."

Dean’s bluster now seems merely symbolic of the hyperbole that he allowed to overtake his campaign.

Democratic primary voters seem perfectly willing to vote for Kerry who has served in the Senate for nearly 20 years and in most ways fits Dean's epithet of “a conventional Washington politician.”

For both Dean and for Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who went from being the party’s beloved vice presidential candidate in 2000 to being forced out of the race Tuesday night, the primary season so far has been a humiliating ordeal.

The Iraq war issue
Dean’s failure is all the more remarkable since only last spring he seemed to capture perfectly the anti-war intensity of many rank-and-file Democratic activists. NBC News exit poll interviews Tuesday revealed that anti-Iraq war sentiment still runs strong in Democratic ranks.

Voters in the primary contests in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arizona on Tuesday expressed disapproval of the decision to go to war in Iraq, a decision Kerry, Edwards and Lieberman supported, but Dean opposed.

In both Arizona and in South Carolina on Tuesday, 74 percent of exit poll interviewees opposed the war, while in Missouri 63 percent opposed the war and 56 percent opposed it in Oklahoma.

Through the spring and summer, Kerry always seemed at his most awkward when confronted with the question of why he voted for the Iraq war resolution. In the primaries so far, Democratic voters seem willing to forgive and forget that support.