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Edwards succeeded in earning the spotlight when he sided with Obama over questioning Clinton’s apparent conversion from the candidate of experience to the candidate of change

N.H. Day 2: Candidates have change in their pockets 

click to enlarge Edwards takes a few practice shots before a speech in Lebanon, N.H. - PHOTO BY MATT SALDAA

“One more,” John Edwards said, as he drained another shot from the free-throw line at a high school gym in Lebanon, N.H. The court was bare, except for a ring of supporters and photographers who dutifully remained outside the paint.

The Edwards campaign had over-booked the adjacent band practice room for a Saturday pre-debate speech—a modest accomplishment compared to Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who packed thousands into high school gyms in Nashua and Penacook earlier that day. (Clinton earned a moment of TV attention when she told the fire marshal in Penacook that there ought to be room for a few more attendees.) The fire marshal in Lebanon was less magnanimous, and the excess crowd at Edwards’ speech were forced to listen “in stereo” over the school’s P.A. system.

Before his speech, Edwards treated the gym-class rejects to an ad-hoc shooting clinic. After missing 10 in a row, he made just as many—refraining from political metaphor as he focused, intensely, on making just one more.

A few minutes later, in a breathless stump speech, Edwards again took on Obama and Clinton, both directly and implicitly: “It’s great to be a Washington operator, and be able to operate within the system. It’s great to be able to give a good speech. The difference is what’s in here,” he said, gesturing toward his heart.

Later that night, at the back-to-back debates at St. Anselm College in Manchester, Edwards again pointed to his heart, when deriding the political power of Washington lobbyists, which he has promised to end, at least in the White House.

“We need a president who believes deeply, in here, who believes in this battle,” he said. “And it is personal for me. When I see these lobbyists roaming around Washington, D.C., taking all these politicians to cocktail parties, the picture I get in my head is my father and my grandfather going into that mill every day, giving me the chances they never had. Where is their voice in this democracy? When are they going to get heard?”

Last night, Edwards made several strong moves toward making his voice heard. Among them, he said that as commander-in-chief, he would listen to generals if they wanted to stay in Iraq, but would unequivocally decide to withdraw all combat troops within the year. He repeated many of the same points in his stump speech about empowering the middle class while attacking special interests. His personal approach was either steadfast or repetitive. But in an election that has become as much a referendum on personality as a debate about issues, it may have left an impression.

Perhaps unwittingly (and perhaps deliberately), Edwards succeeded in earning the spotlight when he sided with Obama over questioning Clinton’s apparent conversion from the candidate of experience to the candidate of change.

At one point, Clinton said, with exasperation, “I want to make change, but I've already made change. I will continue to make change. I'm not just running on a promise of change. I'm running on 35 years of change.”

Bill Richardson, trailing far behind the top three Democrats at the debate, went after Edwards’ populist platform at several points and sided with Clinton’s change-via-experience spin.

“There's nothing wrong with having experience,” the New Mexico governor said. “I love change. We all are for change.”

When Clinton questioned Obama’s consistency on war funding and the USA PATRIOT Act, she also pointed to comments Obama had made several weeks ago, that suggested Edwards’ own inconsistency in his health-care plan. Edwards then shocked the debate room by coming to Obama’s defense.

“Every time [Obama] speaks out for change, every time I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack,” he said, indicating Clinton. “He believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change. And any time you’re fighting for that, I mean, I didn’t hear these kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead.”

Afterward, Edwards’s wife, Elizabeth, responded to what many in the media saw as the night’s biggest story: an apparent alignment between Edwards and Obama, against Clinton.

“[Clinton] was representing a point a view," she said, "and [Edwards] is targeting that point of view—that somehow you can change Washington without changing some of the essential ways in which it operates, money being one of those big ways.”

She said, as Edwards has, that Edwards and Obama have fundamental differences in the way they seek change, among them, their health-care plans. (Edwards’, like Clinton’s, is universal; Obama would not mandate coverage.)

Asked what her wish for the next morning’s headlines would be, Elizabeth Edwards said, “Well, first of all, I’d like his name to be mentioned.”

At the very least, her wish was answered.

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