THE LOS ANGELES TIMES -- February 6, 2004


Edwards Joins the Fray, Returns Fire at Clark

The North Carolina senator, who has largely refused to condemn his rivals, calls the former general's attacks on his record 'petty sniping.'

By Scott Martelle
Times Staff Writer

NASHVILLE Sen. John Edwards' campaign lashed out Thursday at rival Wesley K. Clark, describing the former general's criticisms of Edwards as "doing what desperate politicians do when they are losing ground resorting to misleading negative political attacks."

Clark on Wednesday condemned Edwards, of North Carolina, and front-runner Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts as having voted in the Senate with the Bush administration on the No Child Left Behind measure and the resolution authorizing war against Iraq, while campaigning against those issues in their quest for the Democratic nomination for president.

On Thursday, Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri shot back.

"It is ironic that somebody who made hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying the Bush administration and changed his positions on numerous issues would now accuse others of acting like Washington politicians," Palmieri said in a statement, referring to Clark. "His attacks are nothing but distortions."

Later, speaking with reporters on his charter plane, Edwards took his own soft swipe.

"This is the kind of petty sniping that people are sick of," Edwards said of Clark's comments. But Edwards did not directly address a question about whether his voting record was fair game for Clark to criticize. "I think what Gen. Clark should be talking about is his vision for the country," Edwards said.

The relatively harsh response by the Edwards campaign could well be more significant than the comments themselves.

Edwards has largely refused to attack his Democratic rivals and instead focused on what he sees as the key issues confronting the nation.

Edwards reaped the benefits of staying out of the fray in the early going, when the primary field was crowded with nine candidates exuding varying degrees of cantankerousness. Negative ads and personal attacks have been cited as among the factors that led to Rep. Dick Gephardt's early exit from the race, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's precipitous fall.

"I think there's no question that when in a multiple-candidate race, a food fight between two people is going to do nothing but help the folks outside the food fight," said Peter Fenn, a Washington-based Democratic strategist. "The difficulty now is as it gets down to a one-on-one race, folks do want contrasts drawn."

Running a positive political campaign is admirable in theory. But it's also a given in politics that while people often say they dislike negative campaigning, it remains an effective way to sway voters.

And while Edwards' approach has helped him so far many believe that his positive message helped fuel his rise from a curiosity to a contender it's unclear whether it can sustain him as the field narrows.

Thursday's counterattack on Clark could be the first tentative steps into a political mine field, analysts said.

"What Edwards has to be careful with is that there is plenty of footage about him not running a negative campaign," Fenn said. "Once you begin to flip on that, you get your own credibility problem."

But Robert Weiner, another Democratic strategist, described Thursday's response to Clark as the Edwards campaign signaling that while it doesn't plan to attack, Edwards is a tough enough campaigner to weather a spirited general election.

"Edwards has to have a legitimate spine that he shows, and he is showing it to a degree," Weiner said. "Otherwise people will think he's too nice. He's showing that he can fight back. He's got to show that he can fight Bush."

While Edwards has remained largely disengaged from direct exchanges with his Democratic rivals, he has been unstinting in his criticism of Bush, even occasionally mocking the president. He has described Bush in cartoonish terms, walking around his Texas ranch wearing "a big belt buckle."

On several occasions he has accused the president of being out of touch with the daily lives of the people he says he represents, and he concludes a part of his speech on the troubles facing middle-class Americans with: "And here comes George Bush to help them, right?"

"He does feel that George Bush is flying under false colors as a grass-roots, rural guy," said David Axelrod, one of Edwards' top campaign advisors. "Edwards is a grass-roots, rural guy, and it irritates him."

Yet Edwards and his campaign advisors say publicly and privately that the senator will continue to stick to his game plan.

"What we've shied away from and will continue to shy away from are gratuitous personal attacks, which have characterized some of the other campaigns," Axelrod said.

If Edwards is the nominee, he said, the campaign likely would take the same approach in the general election.

"Every candidate that has taken a bludgeon to another candidate has paid a price for it," Axelrod said.

Part of the approach is also personal, aides say. The public Edwards is very similar to the private Edwards.

"He is fundamentally a positive person," Axelrod said. "Some politicians, you get the feeling they would like to pull the wings off flies."