John Edwards played defensive back in high school, and waiting offstage to speak, he looked eager to get onto the field and hit someone. That is what he did (rhetorically) in the first scrimmage of the 2008 presidential campaign last Friday. Speaking to the Democratic National Committee after Sen. Barack Obama and before Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, he accused Senate Democrats (that is, Obama and Clinton) of caving in to President Bush's Iraq escalation policy. Democrats had to use all their "vigor and tools and strength" to block the surge and begin a withdrawal. "Americans are counting on us not to be weak, political and careful," he said. "It's time for political courage."
Isn't it a little early to start calling your opponents cowards, even if you don't do it by name? Not this time: nasty is in season already. One reason is the insane money scramble, which literally raises the stakes. And with such a demographically diverse field, chances for emotional collisions abound. When Sen. Joe Biden called Obama "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," Hillary's minions didn't focus on Biden; they focused on Obama, who was accused by some black leaders of not being indignant enough on behalf of his own racial heritage.
But the real flash point is Iraq. Hillary's idea of threatening to pull support for the Iraqi government would produce "nothing but disaster," Biden told The New York Observer. He was equally critical of Edwards's plan to call home 40,000 troops now.
Senators are bumping into each other as they move left. Sen. Chris Dodd says Democrats should stage a new "authorizing" vote on the war itself. "The original justifications are gone--discredited," he told me. Obama unveiled his own Iraq plan, which sets a March 31, 2008, deadline for removing all American troops unless the Iraqi government meets tough conditions.
Going "negative" on the war is tricky for Obama, who says he wants to walk the high road. At the DNC, he hushed the crowd with a sermon about how politics should not be "blood sport." But his campaign brags that he was "alone among the candidates in opposing the Iraq war" from the start, and in his speech he proclaimed that he was "opposed to this invasion publicly, frequently and before it began." No blood, but a sharp jab.
Edwards embodies the darker tone. In a hotel "holding room" after the DNC meeting, he was a tougher, more combative character than the one I had met eight years ago. Now you see the Dennis Quaid grin less often. "I've grown up," he said with a shrug.
And he brims with what seems like resentment at Democrats who won't support national health insurance right now (take that, Hillary) or who "talk about labor's concerns only in front of union audiences" (take that, Obama). "I want people to know exactly what I stand for." That sounds like an obvious enough game plan, but it is one he didn't have when he took the field four years ago.