by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos
December 26, 2007
A common phrase heard about John Edwards is that he “looks good on paper” — usually followed by some attempt to explain why he doesn’t measure up in the polls.
Aubrey Immelman, a professor of psychology at College of Saint Benedict & St. John University in Minnesota, says he knows why. Immelman, who has been using a time-tested diagnostic tool to chart the personalities of major political candidates, says Edwards is a classic “nice guy” — a “do-gooder” even − but he may not project enough of the qualities that Americans are looking for in a president.
“The reason he might not have caught fire is he doesn’t exude much of a strongman image,” said Immelman.
“The boyish charm, I think a lot of people like. There’s kind of a little (John F.) Kennedy or Robert Redford about him sometimes,” said Terry Madonna, public affairs professor and director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
“Reporters I talk to say he can be charming, a regular guy,” he said. “But that’s not a significant factor when the stakes, in this election, are so high. I don’t think he’s given us a reason to vote for him.”
Edwards, 54, was born in South Carolina and worked his way up from a lower-middle class background to become a prominent and very wealthy lawyer. He became a U.S. senator from North Carolina in 1998 and ran unsuccessfully for vice president in 2004.
While voters in 2004 claimed an uneasiness with his youthful good looks and lack of experience, he has likely overcome those obstacles, having spent his post-2004 years running the Center for Promise and Opportunity, an anti-poverty advocacy group, and serving as director of the Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has even acquired a few new laugh lines on his face.
His good looks, Southern drawl and empathy with the “other America” — the one struggling to pay for health care, living paycheck-to-paycheck and finding itself deep in debt — has only fleshed out his persona in the intervening years.
Campaign spokeswoman Andrea Purse said Edwards wants to pay back some of what he’s gotten.
“[He] is running for president because he thinks that every American deserves the opportunities he had in his life,” Purse said.
Analysts say Edwards has “grown up” from since he stumped around the country in 2004 as John Kerry’s running mate. “On paper” he should have the best shot at winning over red state voters in a general election, they add.
But as the early primaries loom, both personal and external circumstances appear to be holding Edwards back.
Election watchers say his problem is both political bad luck and his own image. To sum up, three “Hs” confronting him are hard to shake — Hillary, House and Haircut.
“In any other election cycle, with the money he has raised, and the endorsements he has and the support he has, it would put him in a very good position,” said Jennifer Lawless, political science professor at Brown University, who thinks Edwards is lagging behind because of “the field he is in.”
“I don’t think it is a personality issue,” Lawless added.
Hillary Clinton is dominating the Democratic primary landscape with an experience claim that other leading Democrats are finding hard to match this year. Right behind her is Barack Obama, who is soaking up the “change agent” image with a populist outsider message. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for Edwards.
“I think they should play the theme from the [Orson Wells’ film] ‘The Third Man,’” joked Paul Green, professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “He’s busting his butt in Iowa. He just doesn’t seem to have the ability to compete — personality and money-wise — with the big guys. It’s all about who you run against.”
Purse said Edwards’ message cuts through the idea that he is overshadowed by Obama and Clinton.
“As the election gets closer and closer, celebrity will not be what decides who wins the nomination,” she said. “What will decide the nomination is whether one candidate is willing to stand up to the lobbyists and special interests, tell the American people the truth and fight for real change.”
Others suggest that it is not entirely the message, or Clinton or Obama, that are dragging Edwards down, but the messenger himself. He hit hard on Clinton in the last two debates, leading her campaign and supporters to cry foul. Some say that his third-place status — from which he has barely moved over the course of the year — has left him no choice but to take a more aggressive, even angry pose against the Democratic frontrunner.
“There is a whole sense of discomfort with the pretty-boy thing. It’s probably unconscious, but it may set people off,” said Eric Dezenhall, a political image and crisis management man who works primarily for Republicans. “I don’t know if it is a deal-breaker. The idea of a president spending that kind of time on hair and care about it, it can be quite … oogie.”
Dezenhall referred to the now-infamous YouTube video that surfaced late last year showing Edwards primping before a mirror and getting his hair styled to the tune of Broadway’s “I Feel Pretty.” Then there was the news about him spending $400 on haircuts in Beverly Hills.
“He doesn’t come off as a tough guy, and that’s somewhat reinforced by his appearance, and that hair thing,” said Immelman.
Others say it goes beyond that. Edwards has positioned himself as a champion of the poor, but his 28,200-square house in Chapel Hill evokes contradictory messages, as has his post-2004 employment at a public hedge fund management firm that in turn helped raise more than $175,000 for his campaign.
“You can say whatever you want to say, but to the average guy out there, it’s hypocrisy and its going to bite him,” said Bruce Merrill, professor of politics at Arizona State University.
“I think it’s a bum rap,” said Steven Stark, a North Carolina-based columnist for the Boston Phoenix and former aide to President Jimmy Carter.
“Franklin Roosevelt was incredibly rich, and had a big house … the Kennedys were by no means poor … to criticize him because he has money is a little unfair,” said Stark. “They’re all rich, these candidates. And that shouldn’t preclude him from making the pitches he’s made.”
Edwards has been adamant that these matters are not indicative of his message, or even his person. As a personal injury attorney he represented people who were seemingly abused by the system, and he considers himself a champion of the meek. His anti-poverty message stems, at least in part, from his own youth.
“It doesn’t change who I am, what I believe in,” he told reporters on a campaign stop shortly after the haircut story broke. “My whole life has been spent standing up for people who have no voice, and I’ll do that as long as I live.”
Lawless said Edwards has an appealing, detailed platform and engaging style and shouldn’t give up. “I think he would have to do the things he’s already doing” to win, she said. “If Hillary or Barack implodes, he has to be there to step in.”
But ironically, as Edwards seemingly throws over his “Mr. Nice Guy” image for a more assertive suit of clothes, critics have taken to calling him and his campaign angry, even mean, and some say it could hurt him in the end. In the Las Vegas debate – before an audience that was said to have been “stacked” with Clinton supporters — Edwards was booed when he implied that Clinton was part of what he called corruption in Washington.
A survey taken by pollster Frank Luntz of 29 Nevada Democrats who watched the debate indicated that many thought Edwards was “angry, vicious, with nothing to say,” according to an Associated Press report. A quote by Kathleen Starks, a retiree from Las Vegas, suggests it won’t be so easy for Edwards to change gears today.
“Edwards slipped a little in my eyes with his negative comments,” she said. “He hurt himself.”