WASHINGTON--John Edwards, North Carolina's freshman Democratic senator and peripatetic presidential candidate, has a problem. It is North Carolina.
His term expires next year. He must decide by the end of February 2004 whether to seek re-election to the Senate in addition to, or rather than, seeking his party's presidential nomination. This timing is not the problem. The Democratic nominee may well be known by Feb. 27 next year, or at any rate by then Edwards may know that he will not be the nominee.
The problem is that the Democratic nominating electorate nationally is heavily salted with very liberal activists who are to the left of the party as a whole. The more Edwards courts this constituency, which strongly favors abortion, gay rights, gun control and racial preferences, the more apt he is to offend North Carolina Democrats, who are generally somewhat to the right of the national party's center. And he, like all recent North Carolina senators, operates with a narrow margin of electoral support.
North Carolina, like the nation lately, is evenly divided between the parties. Bill Clinton lost there by less than 1 percent in 1992 and by 5 percent four years later. The winning percentages in the state's eight U.S. Senate races since 1980--six of them won by Republicans--have been: 50, 51.7, 51.8, 52.5, 50.3, 53, 51, 54.
The nearest thing to a landslide--in North Carolina terms, it was a landslide--was the eighth, Elizabeth Dole's 54 percent victory last year. Dole achieved this despite hundreds of thousand of dollars in soft money spent by Edwards on broadcast ads designed to turn out the vote for the Democratic ticket.
The seventh of the eight elections in the series was won by Edwards in 1998 with just 51 percent against an extremely weak one-term incumbent, Lauch Faircloth. Faircloth had won the fifth election in that series with just 50.3 percent, defeating a one-term incumbent, Terry Sanford. And now Edwards has on his horizon Rep. Richard Burr.
Although Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's former chief of staff who lost to Dole last year, says he will run again if Edwards does not, Burr is planning on running against Edwards. Burr mentions a New Hampshire poll of 600 registered Democrats and undeclared voters who say they usually vote in Democratic primaries: John Kerry 24 percent, Howard Dean 19, Dick Gephardt 15, Joe Lieberman 13, and Edwards tied at 2 with two people not running--Joe Biden and retired Gen. Wesley Clark.