Peterborough, New Hampshire
In the basement cafeteria of the ConVal High School, John Edwards is being stalked by a geeky teenager. The candidate’s predator is a local student with braces and black hair in a bowl cut. Most notably, he is unwaveringly holding a crude computer-printed sign that reads: ANN COULTER 08!
Edwards has just finished a town hall forum here and he’s swarmed by voters. These flesh-pressing sessions are unpredictable. At a house party in Bedford earlier in the day, the jolly hand-shaking and autographing suddenly paused for an intensely personal moment as a woman pressed a photo of a soldier into Edwards’s hand, explaining that her son had been killed into Iraq. “We’ve been through something similar,” Edwards said softly, referring to his son’s tragic 1996 death. “It never goes away, does it?” The woman hugged Edwards, unmindful that a boom mike hovered overhead.
Here at ConVal High, events have moved from the tragic to the absurd. As Edwards works the crowd, the Coulter kid, who also clutches an article questioning the medical science Edwards relied on as a trial lawyer, tries to maneuver into position to confront him. At each turn, an alert Edwards aide repositions himself between quarry and prey. Finally the boy breaks through. Braces gleaming, he begins to pose his trial lawyer-bashing question. “I don’t have time for this,” Edwards says, and quickly spins away.
Yet now Edwards faces an even more unpleasant encounter. He relocates to a pre-designated corner of the room and does something his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, almost never do: holds a press conference. In campaign speak, this is known as a “press availability,” or, in shorthand, “an avail.” By the day’s end, Edwards will have held an avail after each of his four public events. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton can go a month without having four avails between them. And woe to the reporter who tosses the front-runners a question on the fly. One newspaperman who tried it while Hillary worked a rope line in New Hampshire last week received a sharp glare from the candidate, and an aide promptly arrived to shoo him away. (“Excuse me, can I speak to you over here?” is the preferred technique of the campaign aide seeking to lure meddling reporters away from the candidate.)
Similarly, I saw an Obama aide practically berate a foreign television crew that tried to ask him some basic questions after a town hall in eastern Iowa this fall.
But, unlike his rivals, the attention-starved Edwards needs to keep the press interested. For months, and with mixed results, his campaign has battled the media’s tendency to cast the campaign as a two-“man” race between Obama and Hillary. At a house party in Hampton, N.H., last month, Elizabeth Edwards cited with frustration a New York Times public editor column noting that the paper had run 47 articles about Clinton since Labor Day, and just 18 on Edwards.
Edwards’s aides argue this is deeply unfair. They point to several polls which show a near-dead heat in Iowa--including a new internal campaign poll which puts Edwards two points ahead of Obama among both “likely” and “very likely” caucus-goers. What's more, the new line coming from Edwards-land is that their man doesn’t actually have to win Iowa to survive. He just needs to beat either Clinton or Obama. “If we come in second and beat Hillary Clinton, that’s gonna be pretty huge,” one of his aides says. And if he beats Obama? “It’s hard to see how it becomes a Hillary-Obama race” in New Hampshire. But not all polls are as sunny--including a recent Newsweek survey which finds Obama creaming Edwards, 35-18, among very likely caucus-goers.
Whatever its accuracy, that poll reflects the conventional wisdom among national reporters, which has left Edwards resorting to extreme measures to get some attention. Edwards’s press secretary, Eric Schultz, blast e-mails enough upbeat excerpts about his boss to shock a Viagra spammer. The Edwards campaign tries to make news with an endless rollout of micro-policies and gimmicks like this week’s “Main Street Express” Iowa bus tour (itself an echo of John McCain’s über-press friendly “Straight Talk Express”). On Monday Edwards subjected himself to the unpredictable questioning of Chris Matthews on “Hardball,” a show neither Clinton nor Obama have visited in recent memory. And now there's accessibility, the last refuge of a struggling candidate.
If Edwards doesn’t seem to relish his encounters with the press, it’s hard to blame him. Sometimes they seem like wastes of time, as when Edwards stood in the bitter cold and took a question from a shaggy-haired Swedish radio reporter who resembled a modern art dealer and wanted to know why America’s standing in the world had suffered. Edwards seemed to grimace in annoyance at the elementary question. Other reporters spend much of their time trying to goad him into bashing Hillary and Obama--because nothing makes for good copy like trash-talking. But after weeks of going after Hillary, Edwards has softened his tone recently, content to allow Clinton and Obama to tear one another down, and, he hopes, leave him standing over their bloodied carcasses. Needless to say, there's great tension between this strategy and Edwards’s desire to make news. Time and again, Edwards stops short of giving reporters the red meat they crave. Is Hillary Clinton “not showing leadership” by refusing to offer a Social Security plan? “I’m saying that I am [showing leadership],” he replies with a grin. Has Senator Clinton been too cautious? “That’s for voters to decide.” Even my own meta-question--about whether their stinginess with the press reflects badly on Clinton and Obama--yields a similarly bland reply: “I think we should do it.” The meaning of all this is made explicit when someone asks Edwards whether the Obama-Clinton feud works to his advantage. He doesn’t know. But, he adds, “I’m going to be clear and strong and positive.”
As a result, there hasn’t been a detectable change in the volume of Edwards coverage of late. Which leaves Edwards’s die-hard supporters feeling embittered. “I think he’s been getting short-shrifted on the media,” a white-haired Edwards volunteer named Bill Noelte told me at a Saturday morning event in his hometown of Concord. “Most of it is Hillary and Obama ... Obama’s got Oprah coming tomorrow.” Noelte insists that most New Hampshire voters are still making up their minds and will break for Edwards--as will Iowa caucus-goers whose first-choice candidates, like Dennis Kucinich, won’t clear the fifteen-percent qualifying hurdle. “We don’t hear about this locally,” Noelte complains. “What we hear about is Oprah.” Sounds like it’s time for another avail.
MICHAEL CROWLEY is a senior editor at The New Republic.