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Two-Face

John Edwards is a Clinton-style golden boy. What does it look like when he has a bad day?

2:55 PM, Jan 23, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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Concord, New Hampshire

JOHN EDWARDS is currently the trendy pick to win the Democratic nomination. According to the conventional wisdom, John Kerry is now the solid frontrunner, Dean is a has-been (albeit a has-been with money), and Clark is increasingly out of his league--making Edwards a nice dark-horse bet.

The primary reason for liking Edwards is his collection of natural gifts. He's smart and confident, but more than that, he's a tremendous politician. When he's firing on all cylinders, he's polished but not slick, seamless but not prepackaged. He does not always fire on all cylinders.

Exhibit A would be last night's debate, where Edwards treaded water until he ran up against the Defense of Marriage Act and didn't appear to understand the law. Exhibit B would be today's event at the Page Belting manufacturing plant.

A MAKER OF SMALL LEATHER GOODS, such as knife sheaths, Page Belting is a regular stop for presidential candidates, Kerry and Clark have been here before and today is Edwards's second visit. He reminds his audience of this fact no fewer than three times.

And the audience is small. There are probably 25 workers from the plant seated in chairs, a handful of curious New Hampshire residents standing in a ring around them, and then a legion of journalists who take up most of the space. While Edwards has been drawing good crowds for most of the week, today the media outnumber the voters by at least three to one.

The senator does a modified version of his stump speech, with nearly all references to foreign policy excised. It's his standard litany of the "two Americas" where he laments that there are two healthcare systems, two tax systems, two governments, and so on.

Where Edwards normally walks the line between charm and smarm, today he's missing his marks, asking patronizing rhetorical questions ("Don't you love those credit card companies?" "Now none of you have ever had any trouble with an insurance company or HMO have you? Huh? Have you just a little bit? Yeah, yeah. I know it's never happened to any of you that the doctor says you need something and the insurance company says they're not going to pay for it. That never happens does it? No. Yeah, right.") and misreading his audience, who sit quietly and inertly.

When Edwards finishes his talk, there is a polite round of applause and then he fishes for questions ("Comments? Questions? Anybody? I knew this was going to happen. You're going to be shy now because of all these cameras. You've gotta speak up.") There are few takers, but one of them is a man asking Edwards where the money in his campaign comes from.

Edwards uses the occasion to boast about how he refuses to take money from PACs or lobbyists. "I raise money from individuals," Edwards says. When the questioner asks Edwards to name the individuals, the candidate promises to provide him with a list. The questioner tries to follow up again, but Edwards turns his back to him and says he needs to take other questions, even though no one appears ready with a query.

It seems like an innocent exchange, with one exception: This morning's Washington Post features an editorial charging that Edwards is "alone among the serious candidates for president" who has declined "to provide a list of his major campaign financiers." So (1) Unless Edwards is going to give his questioner more information than he was willing to give the Post, he lied; and (2) His claim about not taking money from lobbyists is deliberately misleading. As the Post explains, "Edwards has collected a bigger chunk of his donations in the form of $2,000 checks, the largest allowable, than any of the other Democratic candidates. . . . It's no secret that the backbone of Mr. Edwards's financial support has been his fellow trial lawyers . . . What's beyond dispute is that trial lawyers are a special interest." Eventually, this kind of cuteness catches up with a candidate.

MANY OF THE VOTERS at the Page Belting event came away unimpressed. Ron Noyes, a musician and a Republican who's disaffected with George W. Bush's fiscal liberalism, was underwhelmed. Rene Oelet , an undecided Democrat, was disappointed, too: "I was hoping for more because, of all the candidates, his personal background is closest to mine." Dave Auprey, a worker at Page Belting, described Edwards's performance as "Not bad, but . . ."