|"Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast"
|"The liberal soul shall be made fat, and he that watereth, shall be watered also himself."
-- Proverbs 11:25
The debates and press release battles have been largely confined to nits picked and, aside from an embarrassing haircut and a recent teapot-tempest over whether the next president should or should not wait a year to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez, there have been few stumbles and fewer fireworks. The worst critique of the Democratic primary so far is that it has been boring. That dismal fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Oscar de la Hoya a few months ago packed more punch. Something's got to give, and the most logical disturbance is the eventual collapse of Edwards' campaign.
Good looking and emotively eloquent, the 54-year-old former North Carolina senator is compelling on television and even more compelling in small interpersonal settings. Because he basically never left the state after the 2004 cycle, Edwards has often topped polls in Iowa. But now his lead is either thin or nonexistent, and he has dropped into a statistical tie with Obama and Clinton. Nationally his poll numbers have already crested and, but for a slight bump after the announcement of his wife Elizabeth's cancer, begun to fall. Maybe the media's obsession with his appearance has had an effect, or maybe the death of his son and his wife's health have led to an unfair perception that the legendary trial lawyer is exploiting personal tragedies for the biggest jury payout of his political life.
But Edwards has another unfortunate, ironic problem: During the post-9/11 era in which the Democratic Party has at times been guilty (think 2002, 2003) of focusing too much on domestic policies as a way to de-emphasize foreign and defense issues, Edwards' highly developed domestic proposals to improve life for the poor and working classes reinforce nagging suspicions that he is not quite prepared to inherit the next president's twin burdens of a war in Iraq and a global counterterrorism effort.
More than a few Beltway analysts have noted that the early primary and caucus calendar favors Edwards. He's good in folksy, socially conservative Iowa. Nevada, next up, is a strong union state, and Edwards has aggressively played the economic populist card, as he did during Tuesday's AFL-CIO debate, to labor's delight. And although New Hampshire affords him little hope, if he can survive there and make it to South Carolina -- his birth state and the only one he carried in 2004 -- he could parlay his regional advantage to become the Big Mo candidate heading into the Feb. 5 mega-primary. But given the calendrical advantages, if Edwards doesn't win Iowa, he's finished. (And, interestingly, he has slipped to third in the Palmetto State.)
If and when Edwards fades, the big question is where his 10 to 15 percent of Democratic voters turn next. Are they anybody-but-Hillary Democrats who will gravitate toward Obama? Or are they suburban Democratic women who find Obama's liberalism discomfiting enough to become Clinton converts? Unless this bloc of Democrats simply believes that taking back the White House in 2008 is too important to risk the trailblazing nomination of a woman or an African-American, and they develop a sudden, unlikely interest in one of the second-tier Democrats, these voters could very well decide the nomination. If Clinton gets even half of them, she'll be almost impossible to beat. But if they break disproportionately toward Obama, Clinton is going to have to do something she would very much prefer to avoid -- emerge from her cocoon of control and composure to start mucking it up with the boys, and that could doom her candidacy.
Despite all he offers -- the biracial biography, the charisma, the fundraising prowess, the Oprah Winfrey alliance -- the Illinois senator has two serious liabilities. The first, as a recent Slate piece by John Dickerson neatly summarized, can be posed with a simple, five-word question, "What has he ever done?" It's convenient to cite a certain Illinoisan's even thinner pre-presidential résumé, but the lack of even a short list of substantive achievements is hardly an asset. The Clinton-Obama spat that began during the CNN/YouTube debate brought the issue of his experience to the fore. "The reason the fight flared so fast can be found in this result from Gallup poll: The key and overwhelming reason voters prefer Clinton to Obama is that they believe she has more experience," observes Dickerson. "That, and the fact that it finally gave Clinton a chance to call Obama 'naive.'"
Obama's other primary-race problem is less obvious. The media mentions it only as an occupational complaint, and it may turn out to be a general election advantage: He's good, but overrated, as a stump speaker. Not only do his big-change, baby-bust-out themes form the core of his standard speech, but he also sandwiches them around tailored addresses to specific groups. At a major Planned Parenthood event in Washington last month, for example, a much smaller portion of Obama's address than Clinton's was topic specific, giving him room for his change-our-politics themes. The boilerplate refrains cause heads to nod the first time but wear thin with repetition.
...presidential elections aren't team competitions between generic party reputations -- they're contests between individual nominees. And the truth is that all three major Democratic candidates have shortcomings. Edwards lacks national security credentials, Clinton revives all sorts of culture war complications, and Obama has little record to tout. If there were a Democratic Dr. Frankenstein, he would fuse Edwards' retail skills, Clinton's operational discipline and Obama's dynamism into an unbeatable Super Candidate. Republicans will have some key weaknesses to exploit and, though their field is not as strong overall, one weakness from which the GOP never suffers is an inability or unwillingness to go for a Democratic candidate's jugular.