Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- The dynamic performance by John Edwards in last Sunday's Democratic presidential debate, assailing his competitors for the nomination, got high marks from political reporters, Republican politicians and left-wing activists. But not from the Democratic establishment. Once their great hope for the future, Edwards now is massively unpopular among party regulars who neither like nor trust him.

Performances at the Goffstown, N.H., event by the two front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, were error-free if a little leaden. Edwards, third man in the big presidential field, supplied the fireworks by taking on both Clinton and Obama. On the surface, he seems a perfect candidate: eloquent, smart, handsome and shrewd. Is he reminiscent of the two slick Southerners who have been the only Democrats elected president in 40 years? Yet, the prospect of an Edwards-led ticket evokes the deepest apprehension inside the party as another flawed presidential nominee.

His nomination is not that remote a possibility. For decades, the Democratic Party's leaders have exerted little impact on the making of a president, with decisions ceded to primary election voters. Edwards is staking everything on the Iowa caucuses, where he periodically leads the state's polls. If he wins there to begin the delegate selection process, he could be unstoppable (as John Kerry was after winning Iowa).

Even though Edwards may end up as the party's nominee, prominent Democrats are surprisingly candid about him. Mark Siegel, a party insider for 35 years, told me: "He came to Washington as a 'New Democrat,' but he's not that kind of Democrat anymore. He's into class warfare."

Edwards has not worn well with party colleagues. Campaign consultant Bob Shrum was enthusiastic about Edwards after working on his 1998 Senate victory in North Carolina and unsuccessfully advised Gore to make him his 2000 running mate. But Shrum chose Kerry over Edwards as his 2004 presidential client. In his newly published memoir, "No Excuses: Concessions of a Serial Campaigner," Shrum explains: "I was coming to believe he wasn't ready; he was a Clinton who hadn't read the books."

During the 2004 primaries, Democratic activist James Carville was enchanted when Edwards shifted his centrist posture to a populist depiction of "Two Americas." Carville told me -- and then repeated it on CNN -- that Edwards was the best stump speaker he ever had seen. When I asked him this week after the New Hampshire debate whether he still felt that way about Edwards, Carville replied: "Maybe he's not as good now."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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