Dem unionists edging Edwards out

On a sunny weekend day in front of San Francisco's Ferry Building, volunteers at the Barack Obama for president table were selling an inch-thick booklet explaining Obama's policy positions for $5. A few feet away, volunteers supporting John Edwards were handing out campaign flyers - that they made and paid for themselves.

One flyer read: "It's not over until everyone votes. Don't let the pundits take away your voice for 2008."

Edwards hasn't won a primary yet. He admitted Sunday that "I got my butt kicked" in Saturday's Nevada caucus. And he is routinely overlooked by the national media at near-Kucinichian levels. In CNN's 10-minute recap of the Democratic White House battle Sunday morning, Edwards' name was mentioned once - to point out how far back he was in the national polls.

But Nevada's debacle aside, if the former North Carolina senator continues to draw at least 15 percent of the vote in forthcoming contests, analysts say he will be a player in the campaign. It is hard to write anyone off yet in this most unpredictable campaign season, especially with so few of the 2,025 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination having been decided.

According to a tally from the Associated Press, Edwards so far has collected 50 delegates, which means he's still within shouting distance of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (236) - the winner in Nevada - and Obama (136). Edwards reaffirmed Sunday that he's in the campaign for the long haul, but analysts say he needs a strong showing Saturday in South Carolina, the state where he was born, to remain relevant. He has spent $2 million in advertising there, more than his rivals.

"He could go to Denver (site of the Democratic National Convention) with 200 delegates, and that will give him some kind of power," said Bryan Blum, political director of the California Labor Federation, which represents 2.1 million workers in the state.

"But you gotta win something soon to show that you can win the nomination, or at least get your name into the conversation," Blum said. "He'll continue to get some support because he has a compelling message that resonates with a large part of the Democratic Party."

Edwards will shape the race by remaining in it. In South Carolina, Democratic strategist Bill Carrick said Edwards will help Obama by pulling white voters from Clinton. But in the Feb. 5 California primary, Edwards' union support will take voters away from the Illinois senator, said Carrick, who grew up in South Carolina and has worked on campaigns there.

The mystery as to why Edwards' campaign hasn't drawn more support is simultaneously baffling and simple to explain. His positions on most major issues are similar to Clinton's and Obama's; often he has been the first to state a position only to have them follow with a similar policy.

His health care plan offers universal coverage where Obama's doesn't. Clinton's plan is similar to Edwards', and was released seven months after his.

This month, Edwards called for a quicker and more complete pullout of U.S. troops and training forces from Iraq than either Clinton or Obama. In 2002, then-Sen. Edwards voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, as did Clinton. Obama publicly opposed it.

Lost in Clinton's boasting of her political experience is that Edwards is the most experienced and vetted national candidate; he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee four years ago. Clinton has been pulling in strong numbers of working-class voters thus far, despite Edwards counting on the support of many major unions throughout the country - the folks experienced at doing the thankless grunt work of a political campaign.

He was among the first candidates to fully embrace online campaigning - even experimenting with new social networking tools like Twitter - yet he has only a fraction of Obama's presence on Facebook, the online tool that proved valuable in organizing young voters in Iowa.

Edwards has talked most aggressively about removing the power of corporate influence from politics, but voters have been telling exit pollsters that Obama is the candidate most likely to bring the amorphous concept of "change" to Washington.

Even Edwards' supporters admit that his problems have less to do with policy differences than with Edwards getting overlooked in the media's focus on the historic candidacies of Clinton and Obama, the best-funded woman and African American to run for president. Even after Edwards finished second in the Iowa caucus this month, he received only a fraction of the media coverage that Obama and Clinton did in the following days, and slightly more than former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican who barely competed there, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's campaign coverage index.

"There's no oxygen left in the room after Obama and Clinton," said Carrick, who ran Richard Gephardt's 1988 presidential campaign. "It's hard to get any when there's a three-candidate field. Look at the Michigan primary. Rudy Giuliani is one of the best-known men in American, and he didn't get more than 3 percent of the vote there."

"Talking about the substantive issues of the campaign, which John is doing, is getting drowned out by the rush to judgment or the rush to celebrity," said Jeff Soukup, a co-chair of California for Edwards.

But as Carrick and others say, those "who love Edwards really love him."

He raised $4 million in California through October, the last federally mandated filing deadline - more than all but four candidates in both parties. But that's only about a third of what Clinton and Obama raised in the state. He has the backing of several of the state's major unions, including the 650,000-member Service Employees International Union in California. But he was the choice of only 13 percent of the respondents in a December Field Poll of likely California voters, behind Clinton and Obama.

Because Edwards accepted federal matching funds that limit him to spending about $50 million for the primary season, he will be vastly outspent by his rivals, who didn't accept such limits.

Still, his supporters hold out hope.

"The race is still very fluid," said Sal Roselli, president of United Health Care Workers West, a 150,000-member union that supports Edwards. "He would be the best president for union members."

Passing out flyers she had made herself in front of the Ferry Building recently, Edwards supporter Kelly Briley said, "I would love to support a woman for president or an African American. But Edwards is the only one who is talking about taking the corporate influence out of politics."

Briley, a 37-year-old San Francisco Web designer, has put a couple hundred dollars into making and copying flyers for the campaign. With its finances stretched thin, the Edwards national campaign relies on such volunteers to spread the message. "The first day we were out here, one woman ran up and hugged me and said, 'Where have you been?' "Briley said.

Walking away from the Ferry Building were 29-year-old Tim Sullivan and his fiance, 21-year-old Caitlin Moe. Both feel that "corporate media" conglomerates have tamped down Edwards media profile because he represents a threat to their power.

Sullivan said that while Edwards may seem to be a long shot at this point to be president, he hopes he remains in the race.

"If he does that, he'll have a significant impact on the agenda," said the Emeryville resident. "I'll consider that to be something."


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