Is John Edwards surging?

Posted: Jan 26, 2004 12:00 AM

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- From the moment Democratic presidential candidates arrived in New Hampshire from Iowa last Tuesday, an unanswered question has been whether the magic found by Sen. John Edwards in Midwestern prairies could be transported across the country. The process has been slow and uncertain, but the answer still could be "yes."

Sen. John Kerry, the decisive Iowa winner, appears headed for another clear victory Tuesday in New Hampshire. Polling indicates former front-runner Howard Dean?s free fall has been arrested, perhaps enough to finish second. Wesley Clark has lost momentum, particularly after a disastrous performance in Thursday night?s final debate. Sen. Joe Lieberman may get into double digits. That leaves Edwards, starting the week in single digits and no better than fourth here, but moving up a little.

Pollster Frank Luntz believes Edwards has "perfect pitch" with today?s Democrat, bashing George W. Bush and painting a grim picture of life in America while holding out hope. Luntz?s focus groups reflect switching from Dean to Edwards. In bygone days when weeks separated voting in Iowa and New Hampshire, Edwards would have had a chance to actually win here. With only a seven-day interim now, and Edwards dividing his time campaigning for the Feb. 3 primary in South Carolina, he still hopes for a second-place finish enabling him to challenge Kerry?s nomination in coming primaries.

Kerry and Edwards disagree on nothing. Indeed, all the leading candidates except Lieberman agree on policy and even what policies they talk about. For prudential reasons, gun control goes unmentioned and abortion is seldom mentioned. The theme is redistribution of wealth in America, and multi-millionaire trial lawyer Edwards propounds it most effectively with his concept of "two Americas."

Edwards talks about two school systems, two tax systems, two economies and two governments -- historic Democratic populism. At the state party dinner in Nashua Saturday night where candidates were restricted to seven minutes each, Edwards barely mentioned Iraq. His "perfect pitch" is telling Democrats how terrible life in America is but promising "the change we all want. Yes, we will! We can do it!"

Fresh from his Iowa victory, Kerry?s events here have been risk-free and symbolic, protecting his suddenly acquired New Hampshire lead. The theme at a Friday rally was support from veterans, a key component in winning Iowa. On Saturday afternoon, the gaunt 60-year-old skated with former Boston Bruin stars in a hockey exhibition and even scored a goal. The only mishap in the carefully scripted performance came at the veterans rally when the irrepressible Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, brought in as a Kerry backer, referred to Vice President Dick Cheney as "the Republican Party?s Jesse Jackson." Hollings was hustled back to Washington.

It was a difficult week for Dean, who never was able to adequately explain his rant and roar in Des Moines last Monday night. At Saturday night?s party dinner, he was still trying lame humor. "I?m so excited to be here," Dean said, "that I could just scream. (Pause, amid restrained audience laughter.) But I won?t." New Hampshire is such a good state for the former governor of neighboring Vermont that his slide here has not been as pronounced as his national decline.

Actually, Clark has fallen in New Hampshire much more sharply than Dean, losing half his former strength according to polls. The retired four-star general has been able to ingest and disgorge liberal dogma, displaying skills used in finishing first in his West Point class. He has made himself into an effective stump speaker but commits the amateur orator?s mistake of shouting. With his voice nearly gone, he disappointed a big crowd at Derry Friday night by not taking questions. Considering his dreadful performance at the Thursday debate, Clark?s managers want to avoid impromptu speech.

A retired couple I talked to at Derry were not impressed by the general. Registered independents, they voted for John McCain in the 2000 Republican primary and Al Gore in November. They told me they were first attracted to Dean, then put off by his erratic behavior, and now lean toward Kerry. But they indicated fascination with John Edwards and wanted to see him again before voting Tuesday. Such voters can determine the Southerner?s fate in New Hampshire and shape his future elsewhere.