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Clinton, Obama Already Courting Edwards Supporters « The Washington Independent

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Even before John Edwards officially ended his campaign Wednesday, the Democratic front-runners Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama issued statements praising his efforts and making not-so-subtle pitches to his supporters.

They were also courting the candidate himself. Joe Trippi, a top Edwards advisor, told Talking Points Memo’s Election Central, "They’re banging down the doors," trying to win an endorsement, preferably before Tuesday’s massive primary contests.

In a midday speech in New Orleans, Edwards continued to stress the central issues of his campaign: providing universal health care, fighting poverty, ending global warming. He showed no preference between the two remaining candidates, but declared, "If we continue to hear the voices of working people…a proud progressive will occupy the White House."

With Obama closing in on Clinton’s national lead, Edwards supporters could play a central role in deciding which Democrat wins the nomination.

Most of the analysts who spoke with The Washington Independent said a quick assessment pointed to Obama, but hurried to temper that with reasons why Clinton might benefit.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, a Washington newsletter, said, "You make an assumption that if they were with Edwards, they were probably a little anti-Clinton because she’s the establishment. Then logic would tell you that they would probably go to Obama."

Edwards is credited with pulling the Democratic candidates to the left. Clinton and Obama both tweaked their campaigns to reflect his populist message and put forward aggressive plans on health care and poverty reduction.

While Clinton is seen as more of a centrist than Edwards, her call for universal health care through an individual mandate may appeal to Edwards supporters. Like Edwards, she has won the backing of many working-class voters who make up the Democratic base.

Obama has drawn much of his support from better-educated and higher-income voters. But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama on Monday may be well-timed to help him take advantage of Edwards’s decision to exit the race.

Kennedy is expected to campaign heavily for Obama — he will be in New Mexico on Thursday and California on Friday — and his presence on the stump could help Obama make inroads among union members, urban ethnics, and other key Democratic constituencies that Edwards was focused on.

Michael Kazin, a Georgetown University history professor who studies populism, said Edwards drew support from many income levels, not just union members and blue-collar workers. "One of the problems he had was he didn’t connect enough with the people he was trying to reach."

Instead, Kazin said, Edwards connected especially well with people who favor economic liberalism, "something that looks like a second coming of the New Deal, together with a passionate mistrust of corporations." For them, the question is whether they want to return to the centrist economics that characterized the first Clinton era — and are expected to dominate a second Clinton White House — or make a break with it by backing Obama.

Kazin also cautioned that many working people do not make their decisions based simply on economic grounds. "Maybe you don’t think anybody is going to solve your problems and you’d rather go with someone you like."

Recent polls give an edge to Clinton in the race for Edwards votes. Four in 10 of his supporters said their second choice was Clinton, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo poll this month. One quarter of Edwards supporters said they preferred Obama. A Los Angeles Times poll also found that slightly more Edwards voters named Clinton their second choice.

But Donna Brazile, a longtime Democratic activist who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, said by email it was hard to tell what voters who had backed Edwards would do now. "I spent most of my day talking with his key supporters and honestly I cannot tell."

Tom Schaller, author of "Whistling Past Dixie," a book that urges Democrats to build a winning coalition without relying on the South, said the Clinton and Obama camps are both counting on attracting Edwards voters. Each camp uses different logic — and both may be basing their approaches as much on hope as on rigorous analysis.

"The Obama people view Edward voters as having an anybody-but-Hillary mindset, in which case they get the lion’s share," said Schaller, who teaches political science at the University of Maryland.

The Clinton camp sees Edwards voters as favoring a white male populist. "Though perhaps wishing to vote for neither a woman nor an African-American, they will see Bill Clinton, their standard bearer, behind Hillary, and she will get the lion’s share."

Duffy noted that in states where primaries have already been held, "Obama hasn’t got a lot of the white vote." There is also anecdotal evidence, she said, that blue-collar voters who didn’t vote for Edwards went to Clinton. "You have two very conflicting theories there, and I think we’re going to have to wait and see how it falls out."

Duffy cautioned that in many states where primaries will be held on Tuesday, early voters have already cast their ballots. She also warned about the limits of predicting large shifts in voting based on the withdrawal of Edwards from the race. "I never believe that voters move in a pack."

But for Clinton and Obama, it sure is worth a try.

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