Friday, Jan. 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
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John Edwards has been called the sleeper candidate, the stealth candidate -- he may even be the forgotten candidate.
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama are the historic ones -- seeking to be the first woman or the first black man to become president. Plus, she’s got the pedigree, he’s got the charm and the media love a sensational story. Studies show they’re getting most of the attention.
“For a year now the national media has been telling the voters there are only two candidates,” Edwards said matter-of-factly Wednesday night at a union rally. “What I know is, when people hear both the passion with which I speak and the things I believe in, they move in my direction. So the challenge is to get heard. And I have to make certain that I get heard, and it’s remarkable how much of a fight that is.”
Not that Edwards hasn’t been working the state. He has dozens of paid staff and a solid corps of dedicated precinct captains. His people said he’s been here 17 times -- more than any other candidate -- and talked up the early endorsements from the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and the United Steelworkers Union, which provided time to build the framework for a strong caucus finish. Volunteers -- many flown in after Edwards’ second-place finish in Iowa -- have been calling and visiting Nevada caucusgoers for weeks. Union members say they’re motivated and planning to turn out Saturday.
But Edwards lost the two biggest prizes -- endorsements by the Culinary and the Service Employees International Union. So no one in his camp is talking about a win here. Edwards wasn’t scheduled to hang around after Friday.
But there are factors working in his favor and supporters say he’s impossible to dismiss in Nevada. Edwards’ campaign is banking on fervent support from environmentalists and socially liberal party activists.
“He conveys a more aggressive progressive agenda,” said Hugh Jackson, a blogger at the influential liberal Web site lasvegasgleaner.com who has endorsed Edwards.
Edwards’ campaign hopes these activists -- the ones who read position papers and compare differences on alternative energy policies -- will make up a large percentage of caucusgoers. Additionally, Edwards’ populist message resonates with Nevada’s working class. Edwards has walked picket lines and campaigned in Nevada for the AFL-CIO last year to raise the minimum wage.
Edwards was the first to propose a universal health care plan. He advocates a significant increase in the minimum wage and would tie it to inflation. He’s called for labor laws that would strengthen unions’ hand against management.
And, he’s called for a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, eliminating all American presence within 10 months. That’s a more aggressive withdrawal strategy than has been offered by his chief opponents.
Edwards was much more of a centrist in the Senate. He voted to authorize President Bush to use force against Iraq. (He apologized for that vote in 2005.)
On the hustings, Edwards, now leaner and more angular than in his failed 2004 vice presidential run, looks unburdened, liberated from having to thread the centrist needle. He seems to enjoy his new lefty impulses, even if they come with great weight on his shoulders.
Edwards, who lost a son before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1998, helped his wife recover from breast cancer after his failed 2004 vice presidential bid, only to have her learn of its crushing return last year. They went ahead with his run anyway.
Speaking to a lunch-box-and-Thermos crowd at the carpenters union hall Wednesday, Edwards -- preppy in his bluejeans, blue blazer and button-down shirt -- was attired more for the picnic-basket-and-Perrier set.
He engaged them with his personal story of growing up in a family of millworkers and, as an attorney, championing Everyman.
Unlike the other two candidates, he says, he is not beholden to corporations and special interests. He refers to his competitors as “celebrity candidates” who run “$100 million campaigns.”
“Nothing will change if we exchange a bunch of corporate Republicans for corporate Democrats,” Edwards said to carpenters’ applause.
He uses his underdog status to motivate supporters.
“We’re going to create a tidal wave of change that moves across this country, that cannot be stopped,” he shouted above the din of cheers at the union hall. “And when it’s over, we will be able to look our children in the eye and say, ‘We did for you what our parents did for us. We made certain that you have a better life than we had.’”
The carpenters erupted into a chant: “Go, John, go! Go, John, go!”
“We’re not rich people,” said Eugene Costa, gesturing to the union hall. “We need someone to fight for us. All the other candidates help rich people.”
To be sure, Edwards isn’t met with full houses everywhere he goes in Las Vegas. Tables were still available Tuesday morning at The Egg & I, a cafe on Sahara, about five minutes before Edwards arrived for a publicized visit.
Some commentators have wondered why Edwards is still in the race.
But political blogger Jackson notes that Clinton was virtually declared dead after losing in Iowa.
“Given the spectacular success of conventional wisdom, as demonstrated in New Hampshire, it’s perfectly understandable he’d want to stick around for another contest or two,” Jackson said. “If nothing else, this year has proved that politics are unpredictable.”
Sun reporters J. Patrick Coolican and David McGrath Schwartz contributed to this story.