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John Edwards Visits Dartmouth

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Even though the first votes won't be cast for a year, primary season is already well underway. This past week, presidential candidate John Edwards of North Carolina visited campus and held a town hall meeting at Alumni Hall. The room was packed with students and members of the local community--some were forced to watch the event via closed-circuit television in another room.

Though Edwards often speaks about domestic issues and his perception of "two Americas," he chose to focus mostly on foreign policy. He advocated a strategy emphasizing human rights, saying that the country has to become "a force for good on
Earth." In particular, Edwards feels that the U.S. must do something tangible about the genocide in Darfur, as well as the AIDS epidemic in Africa. More broadly, Edwards wants to confront the problem of global poverty, noting that half the world lives on $2 or less a day.

Poverty is Edward's signature campaign issue. In December 2006, Edwards declared his candidacy in the ninth ward of New Orleans to highlight his efforts to combat poverty. The same year, Edwards worked to put minimum wage iniatives on the ballot. Since his first presidential campaign, he has built strong ties with organized labor. Edwards is clearly running to the left of Hillary Clinton, casting himself as the candidate of economic and social justice. I suspect Barack Obama, another contender for the Democratic nomination, will also try to portray himself as a champion of the poor and working class. However, Obama has yet to make major statements on the subject, allowing Edwards to occupy the populist spectrum of the Democratic Party for now.

At the meeting, Edwards also spent a substantial amount of time talking about the war in Iraq. He took full responsibility for his vote in support of the 2002 resolution giving the President authority to go to war. Edwards is on record opposing the surge of troops into Baghdad and says now that "there is no military solution" to the problem. He seeks to withdraw 40,000-50,000 soldiers from the country in the near future, and move towards a general drawdown of American forces.

Edwards made a generally favorable impression on members of the audience. "As someone who never considered voting for him in the first place, I was a lot more impressed than I thought I would be," said Chris Martin '10.Edwards deftly answered questions about his environmental voting record and his policy on illegal immigration. At the outset, Edwards promised audience members that he would always tell the truth, and that they would know where he stood even if they didn't agree. In answering a question regarding illegal immigration, Edwards said he believed immigrants should be required to learn English, and pay a fine in order to become naturalized citizens, a stance which might rankle some.

A significant point of tension during the town meeting arose when Casey Ley (class of 2007) asked Edwards his position on gay marriage. Edwards explained that he felt he could not support gay marriage since he was raised in a southern Baptist church. However, Edwards said he supported civil unions and stringent enforcement of non-discrimination laws. Some felt that Edwards looked uncomfortable answering the question on gay marriage, and that he was wishy-washy on the subject. However, Aurora Coon (class of 2010) said, "I thought his stance was very reasonable, and I appreciated that he acknowledged his biases."

I believe Edward's position should be respected, and I emphatically disagree that he waffled on the subject. As a Southerner, and a practicing Christian, it is natural that Edwards would not support gay marriage. It is a mark of strength that he is willing to follow his principles when it would be more convenient for him to pander to gay-marriage supporters to try and win the nomination. The Democratic Party claims to be a big tent, so it should allow for people like Edwards to have different views on these divisive social issues. Critically, Edwards is where the country is on gay marriage. Most Americans do not support it; in fact the Republicans successfully used the issue as a wedge in 2004 in order to bolster conservative turnout and peel off socially-conservative Democrats.

Even with all the excitement Edwards caused on campus, the media has already decided that the primary is essentially a two-person race between Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. However, I believe Edwards is in a strong position to capture the nomination. Many Democrats are leery of Hillary Clinton since she is polarizing, and wonder if Obama has enough experience to be credible in a general election. Edwards is strong on the stump, and much more charismatic than Clinton. He also has slightly more experience than Obama. Finally, Edwards is currently leading in the polls in Iowa. If Edwards wins in Iowa, he could use the momentum to win the Nevada caucus, and the New Hampshire primary. At this point Obama would likely be knocked out, while Clinton's huge fundraising machine would allow her the luxury of setback. Edwards could then compete with Clinton in southern states like South Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee, where he has a strong chance of winning.

I think Edwards could make a strong general-election candidate as well, should he get the nomination. Eloquent and charming, he is a natural campaigner. He can carry every state John Kerry won in 2004 theoretically giving him 252 electoral votes. I also think he would likely win Ohio and Iowa, two states Democrats need to win Presidential elections. In addition, Edwards would make many southern states competitive for the first time in years, including North Carolina and Virginia.

All of this is speculative of course. Many states such as California and Florida are moving their primaries up in hopes of influencing the nomination process. If this happens, Edwards would be greatly disadvantaged. He does not have the organization or fundraising capacity that the two frontrunners will have. Besides, Edwards has weaknesses of his own which could keep him from winning an election. He only served one term in the senate, and held no prior political office. He has no major foreign policy experience. If Edwards has to run against someone like John McCain he would be at a disadvantage. McCain would look like the experienced elder statesman, while Edwards would look like a lightweight who lacks gravitas. Furthermore, Edwards's past as a wealthy trial lawyer could possibly come back to haunt him. Polls show Americans aren't terribly fond of lawyers, and Republicans will try to paint him as a particularly slick ambulance chaser.

I do think Edwards has plenty of strengths, and in the end his weaknesses wouldn't necessarily cost him an election. If Iraq is still in the mess it is now, voters might overlook Edwards's inexperience given his opposition to the war and his desire to withdraw. More immediately, Edwards is in a stronger position to win the nomination than most people realize now. If anything happens in the next year to the frontrunners, and Edwards is able to capitalize on his strength in Iowa, he may just be the next President of the United States.
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Marcus Alexander Gadson is a freelance journalist and commentator. He has written articles on various issues including foreign policy, race, economics, and politics for publications including the Huffington Post, the Daily Voice, and the (more...)

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