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Edwards' Iowa presence sparks speculation about 2004

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Published: Sunday, March 4, 2001 9:54 p.m. EST

Edwards' Iowa presence sparks speculation about 2004

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By JOHN WAGNER, Washington Correspondent

DES MOINES, Iowa -- President George W. Bush hasn't been in office for much more than a month. But in Iowa -- home to the nation's first presidential caucuses -- it's never too early to start thinking about the next election.

That helps explain what U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina was doing in downtown Des Moines on Saturday night.

In what Democratic activists describe as the first "toe-dipping" of the 2004 presidential campaign, Edwards delivered a half-hour speech at a Drake University Law School dinner attended by about 400 people, including some of Iowa's best-known attorneys and state Supreme Court justices.

Edwards' address was filled with populist rhetoric about what lawyers and elected officials can do to help "ordinary people" who he said are pitted "in a war" against big corporations and special interests.

"I didn't go to Washington to go up there and schmooze and go to cocktail parties and get along," Edwards said. "I went up there to fight for the people I represent."

He made no mention of the 2004 presidential campaign -- but that wasn't necessary, political observers said.

"He's sending a signal just in being here," said David Yepsen, a Des Moines Register columnist who's covered Iowa politics for the past 26 years. "I call this a 'deal-me-in' visit. He's not sure he wants to play, but he wants to be at the table."

Edwards, who has been a senator for only two years, has yet to say publicly whether he's interested in running for president -- and he continued to dance around the subject in interviews Saturday. "That's not why I'm here," he insisted, saying he could have delivered the same speech to lawyers and law students anywhere in the nation.

Edwards was greeted Saturday afternoon by melting snow, a handful of local reporters at his hotel and this front-page headline in The Register: "Campaign 2004: Iowa visits begin."

"People are kind of excited to have him here and get the opportunity to get to know him better," said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based political consultant who managed then-Vice President Al Gore's general election campaign in the state and has done extensive work for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin. "His visit has certainly created a little stir in the political community."

Ever since making Gore's short list of vice presidential running mates last summer, Edwards' name has been included in virtually all the lists of potential 2004 contenders floated in the media. This has befuddled some of his North Carolina colleagues in Congress.

But with no clear Democratic front-runner for 2004, an Edwards candidacy isn't far-fetched, Iowa activists said.

"I think our party will look for a new, fresh face, and that's an obvious benefit for Senator Edwards," said Jerry Crawford, a Des Moines lawyer and one of his party's most influential activists. "If you were going to sit down and design a candidate for Iowa, his pedigree really fits well."

Crawford cited a variety of reasons Edwards could be appealing, including his parents' working-class background -- Edwards' father worked in a textile mill -- and his focus on education and privacy-related issues in the Senate.

"He's attractive and articulate," Crawford said. "I think he's a star."

Iowa traditionally holds its caucuses in late January or early February, eight days before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

While Edwards is making the first post-election visit to Iowa, there are plenty of rumored pilgrimages from other potential 2004 contenders.

U.S. Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts had penciled in visits last month to Cedar Rapids for a Democratic party fundraiser, but backed out. And Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana has been talking to state party activists about making an appearance in the state soon.

"Right now, Iowa Democrats are pretty much open to anyone who might have an aura of a winner," said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University.

In a Register poll published in late January, Democrats named more than 10 candidates they'd like to nominate in 2004. Edwards didn't get enough mentions to be listed in the results.

Crawford said although the poll will be "completely meaningless" by 2004, it does show how much work Edwards has to do if he's serious about running. There's no evidence that he's started actively raising money in the state or courting local activists to help him with a bid.

This isn't Edwards' first trip to Iowa, though. In the week before the November election, he was among a stream of Democrats who came here to campaign on Gore's behalf. That two-day trip included a luncheon with about three dozen party activists and a speech to high-school students in Ames.

Contacts Edwards made with Iowa lawyers during his fall visit led to his invitation to speak at Saturday night's event. His frequent television appearances on political talk shows convinced the law school dean that he would be a good speaker.

Edwards has been doing plenty of other things that politicians with national ambitions do. On the way to Iowa on Friday, he stopped in Chicago for visits with the city's mayor and a whirlwind of radio and newspaper interviews.

If history is any guide, Edwards can't remain coy about his intentions much longer. Successful candidates have traditionally started showing up in Iowa very early.

Link said that Gore, a well-known incumbent vice president, made three or four appearances apiece in 1997 and 1998 -- the political equivalent of this year and next for the 2004 race.

If Edwards is serious about a presidential bid, activists will expect to see him at least once more this year, Link added.

Although political campaigns are fought over the airwaves in most parts of the country, Iowa voters still expect -- and generally reward -- candidates who give them face time.

It's not unusual for candidates to spend more than 100 days in the state in the final year before the caucuses. Some all but move here for the final months.

"The key factor in whether you're viable here is whether you're willing to spend the time and get out here and tell people face-to-face why you want to be president of the United States," Link said.

Even Edwards' detractors acknowledge that he excels in town-hall style meetings, which are a staple of Iowa campaigns. Each week in Washington, Edwards hosts such events for visiting constituents that sometimes draw more than 100 people.

By their nature, caucuses draw only the most diehard of party activists. About 80,000 people determined the Democratic winner in 2000. But securing their votes requires time-consuming organizational efforts across the state's 99 counties.

"This is probably the single most intense organizational activity in politics today," Crawford said.

On the Democratic side, there are numerous interest groups to court, including teachers, government employees and other labor organizations. Farm groups also have an important voice.

So do trial lawyers -- the one constituency where Edwards has already made inroads. Roxanne Conlin, one of the state's best-known lawyers and a former Democratic candidate for governor, said Edwards is both well-known and well-respected among the Iowa legal community.

Conlin, who has known Edwards for a decade and contributed $1,000 to his 1998 Senate campaign, said that the last time she talked to Edwards by phone, she playfully asked if he were calling to announce his candidacy for president.

"He just laughed," she said.

Washington correspondent John Wagner can be reached at (202) 662-4380 or

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