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Edwards Plays Chicken

Will Senator avoid political brick wall?

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John Edwards is playing a game of chicken with his political career that is not for the faint of heart. Few in politics would even consider it. But then few in politics possess Edwards' near maniacal level of ambition, either. What Edwards is currently doing isn't all that different from hurtling a race car at full throttle into a brick wall, all the while counting on his instincts to tell him when he has reached the last possible moment to swerve without crashing.

The brick wall is the 2004 US Senate race. Unfortunate distraction though it is, he'll have to win it if he wants a second term in the Senate. So the game is to hang on to his presidential bid long enough to see if President George Bush becomes beatable, and if he's not, to get out in time to repair his sagging popularity with North Carolina voters who are beginning to sense -- correctly -- that Edwards' Senate seat is little more to him than a ticket to something better.

Either way, Edwards wins. If Bush isn't beatable, Edwards walks away with the millions he raised for his presidential race that he can then use to shore up his Senate seat or store away for the 2008 presidential race. In the meantime, he gets millions more in free publicity nationwide, setting him up nicely for a 2008 run. And if it looks like he'll get crushed in the Democratic presidential primaries -- Edwards has a gift for Democratic primaries -- he simply ducks the presidential race and comes back home in the nick of time to save his Senate seat. Sure, he's got a lot of damage to repair with NC voters, but despite Republican Congressman Richard Burr's best efforts at raising money to beat him, for the time being, Edwards still lacks an opponent he should seriously worry about.

Why the rush to the Oval Office? Edwards has read the writing on the wall. While this state still elects Democrats statewide, it increasingly votes Republican in national elections. Republican Elizabeth Dole just clobbered Democrat Erskine Bowles, who Edwards campaigned for, by nine percentage points, the significance of which surely was not lost on Edwards. He knows he doesn't have time to sit around for three terms, building a pedigree while North Carolina becomes more Republican. After 2004, he'll have an increasingly hard time defending his seat. So, rather than weathering the storm like retired Senator Jesse Helms did, barely eking out elections by providing legendary constituent service, Edwards has decided to plunk down his entire political future on a gamble that he can turn back from the wall in time to avoid crashing. Despite a March poll by the Elon Institute for Politics and Public Affairs that showed his favorable rating with NC voters has sunk to a low of just 37 percent, Edwards had the brass to miss 14 Senate votes in June while on the presidential campaign trail.

He knows voters have short memories and that they respond well to propaganda if you have the money to buy it, and given the $7.4 million he's raked in as a presidential contender, he'll have plenty. If he needs them, Edwards knows it's still early enough to re-romance North Carolina voters.

It's a risky, but brilliant strategy. At this point, Edwards would be hard-pressed to win his own state in a presidential general election. Two of his most important campaign strategists have defected to other campaigns. But that hardly seems to matter to national Republican leaders, who must be privy to some focus group studies that the media hasn't yet gotten their hands on. It's Edwards they're attacking, which means it's Edwards they fear.

And for good reason. Nobody has really yet seen what Edwards is capable of. This is a guy who rarely even voted before he came out of political obscurity to win a Democratic primary against two of the state's most popular Democrats, then went on to trounce a sitting Senator. Sure, he's a multi-millionaire, but so are lots of people. Strip away the money and you still have a youthful, attractive political genius with a gift for wooing the media, who, at least in this state, seem willing to go to the mat for him. It's also worth mentioning that as of the last official campaign reporting period, Edwards had raised more money than the rest of the field of well-established, nationally known Democratic presidential hopefuls who hadn't even heard his name until four years ago.

While it's more likely that his real presidential ambitions are for 2008, not 2004, at this point, underestimating Edwards is a really, really bad idea for his opponents. If Edwards doesn't crash in next year's Senate race, I wouldn't be at all surprised if he winds up occupying the Oval Office in the next decade.

Unlike the rest of the Democratic field of presidential hopefuls, Edwards has no real national persona yet. In the next seven months, he can become whatever and whoever he wants. Just who he becomes in the coming months -- and years -- will probably surprise NC voters who are supposed to know him best, but don't really know him at all.

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