CHAPEL HILL - John Edwards wasted no time after his fellow presidential hopeful, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, dropped his recent comments that he was "at Ground Zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers," and called himself "one of them." Edwards campaign manager David Bonoir released a statement blasting Giuliani for taking "every opportunity to exploit the memory of 9/11 for political gain." The Edwards campaign labeled it "outrageous for Giuliani to suggest, in any way, shape or form, that he did more at ground zero or spent more time there than the brave first responders."
Giuliani's campaign fired back, dismissing Edwards' criticism. "For John Edwards to lecture Rudy Giuliani about September 11th is laughable at best," said Katie Levinson, Giuliani's Communications Director. "This is, after all, the same guy who thinks the War on Terror is simply a 'bumper sticker.'"
Harder to dismiss was a New York Times analysis showing Giuliani spent a total of twenty-nine hours at Ground Zero between September 17 and December 16, 2001, compared with an average 400 hours for cleanup workers.
It's not the first time Edwards has focused his attacks on Giuliani. Speaking before a crowd in San Francisco on August 1, Edwards said Giuliani as president would be "George Bush on steroids." He warned that "we have insurance companies, drug companies and oil companies running this government. And they need to be stopped. Giuliani just wants to empower them."
And at private fundraisers, Edwards swaggers when he floats the possibility of taking on Giuliani in the general election. "Are you telling me that Giuliani is going to beat me in the South?" Edwards asked his top North Carolina donors at a June closed-press event hosted by his former law firm in Raleigh. "Are you kidding? That sounds like some kind of joke!"
Since Edwards still has to clinch the Democratic nomination before stepping into the ring for a potential match against Rudy, his Giuliani-bashing might seem premature. Yet for Edwards, whose poll numbers and fundraising totals are stuck in third place, slamming a top Republican contender could be a smart move.
For one thing, it elevates him above the Democratic primary infighting. It might distract from Edwards' string of campaign missteps, like his expensive haircuts or ties to a hedge fund for the wealthy that owns subprime mortgage companies, two of which were recently discovered trying to foreclose on Katrina victims. Not to mention generating goodwill for him among Democrats tired of seeing their candidates turning on each other like crabs in a barrel. The longer Obama and Clinton squabble over who has the experience to be Commander in Chief, they more they risk creating an opening for Edwards to slip through.
It also plays to Edwards' perceived strengths as a Southern Democrat. By raising the prospect of running against a Northeastern Republican like Giuliani who is pro-choice on abortion and supports gay rights, Edwards is subtly suggesting he can compete for the votes of social conservatives. "You get a Southerner against a former New York City mayor, and you've really got a cultural dichotomy that is tough on the GOP," veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick recently told Rolling Stone. "It's enough to make a Republican strategist suicidal."
But despite his accent, Edwards' appeal in Southern states is by no means a done deal. He was elected by North Carolina voters to his single Senate term in 1998 by a tight 51-47 margin, defeating incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth. Faircloth was outgunned by Edwards' telegenic, youthful appeal and natural skills as a campaigner, but he was also one of Bill Clinton's main tormentors and a casualty of voter anger over Clinton's impeachment.
In 2004, Edwards chose to give up his Senate seat after one term and run for president full throttle. Skeptics claimed it was because he wouldn't have been re-elected in North Carolina. Throughout most of his term, Edwards was dogged by criticism that his presidential ambitions were detracting from his ability to serve the state in Congress.
Although Edwards won the South Carolina primary in 2004, his only primary win of the season, it wasn't very overwhelming. He only managed 45 percent of the vote to Kerry's 30 percent, with 10 percent for Al Sharpton. And the Edwards campaign mounted an all-out organizing effort in South Carolina, the hardest they worked to win any contest all season. Just a week after his South Carolina victory, he still lost to Kerry by double-digit margins in both Virginia (52-27) and Tennessee (41-26).
When he was considering Edwards as a running mate, John Kerry sent his brother Cam to North Carolina to meet with local journalists and longtime political observers, one at a time. The first question he invariably asked was, "Can Edwards carry your state?" But in November, Bush took 56 percent of the vote in North Carolina, versus 43.5 percent for the Kerry/Edwards ticket, almost identical to his 56-43 victory there over Gore in 2000. The Democrats lost every Southern state, and couldn't even carry Edwards' home county or his hometown of Robbins, N.C.
In 2004, black voters made up 49 percent of Democratic primary voters in South Carolina. This time around, they're splitting almost exclusively between Obama and Clinton, which spells trouble for Edwards. Recent state polls reveal him about where he is nationally, in third place with an average of 15 percent.
It’s unclear whether Southern moderates would warm to John Edwards version ’08 in a general election. The centrist image Edwards staked out during his Senate term is a fair distance from the unabashedly liberal platform he’s running on today. In 2004, Edwards was to the right of Kerry and Dean. He’s since reinvented himself as the most progressive of the major Democratic candidates.
As far as the latest national numbers go, Edwards is in good shape for any eventual dust-up with Rudy. In polls from late June to late July compiled by the site RealClearPolitics, he leads Giuliani in a hypothetical general election matchup by an average of two points. Yet that's par for the course right now, at a time when the war in Iraq and six years of George W. Bush's countless mistakes have soured the country on the GOP brand. Clinton beats all Republican comers by an average of four points. Obama's got a nine-point advantage over Giuliani and company. In a June NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of generic presidential preferences, Democrats showed a 21-point advantage, 52 percent to 31 percent.
Lest Edwards gain any traction by beating up on the Republican Party's would-be standard bearer, Hillary was quick on the draw, contrasting herself with the current White House occupant.
Last week she released her first TV ad of the 2008 campaign in Iowa, which bashes Bush by showing her standing up for people like struggling families, single moms, and our nation's soldiers who seem "invisible to this president." Edwards can run against Giuliani all he wants, but first he's got to catch up with the other New Yorker in this race.