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Why Edwards Won't Quit -- You Pick the Reason

By D. G. Martin
Posted Sunday, December 28, 2003

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Edwards could wind up as the strongest Democratic alternative to Howard Dean.

One on One with D. G. Martin

Why is John Edwards still in the presidential race?

I hear this question a lot these days. I do not know why people expect me to have an answer, but they do. They explain that the poll results show that Edwards is not "getting traction. "Or they say that the Howard Dean has stolen the "new face" advantage that Edwards expected to have. Some point out that General Wesley Clark has taken away the advantage Edwards might have had as the "Southern moderate." Others have their own reasons for why Edwards "just is not going to get the Democratic presidential nomination."

When I get this question, I ought not to pretend to know the answer. But I cannot resist and always give a response. Here is what I say:

The easy answer is that quitting is not part of the program for successful politicians even when the chips are down, even after big setbacks. If it were, we would not have had such presidents as Abraham Lincoln or Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon, each of whom had their "career ending" political setbacks.

There is another thing about competitive politicians. Many of them simply never think they are going to lose. Maybe it is an ego thing. They just think they are destined to win even when almost everybody else does not give them much of a chance. In this respect, they are like some of the best championship athletes. Before every big contest they persuade themselves that they are going to be winners. Conventional wisdom never gets in the way of their winning attitude.

There may be another reason for Edwards' persistence. When a high profile political candidate raises millions of dollars from friends and new supporters, the candidate owes them something.

A candidate's supporters can forgive him for losing if he has given everything to the effort. But taking their money, spending it, and then quitting for the battle before it really begins is a hard thing for them to understand or forgive. They believe in their candidate, and they expect him to give them their moneys worth.

I could stop right there and leave most of my questioners satisfied.

But there may be much more to Edwards' persistent campaigning. He might really pull it off.

I see the possible signs in reports from Iowa and New Hampshire. Even though the poll results do not show much progress and the newspaper reporters treat him as a very long shot, their articles almost always talk about a corps of "true believer" Edwards supporters in those states. These are some of the people who have met Edwards on his relentless schedule of home visits to people throughout both states.

In both Iowa and New Hampshire, a high level of commitment from a hard-working, well-organized, passionate corps of volunteer supporters can produce surprising results. Remember Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

If Edwards' volunteers pull off strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, his "better than expected" performances--even if he is only a strong third or fourth--could mark him as a solid contender and give him the momentum to win in South Carolina.

With a win in South Carolina and the possible departure of other candidates like Lieberman or Kerry, Edwards could wind up as the strongest Democratic alternative to Howard Dean.

Would Edwards then have the strength to stop Dean? I would not bet on it. But then again, I would not bet against Edwards either.

Just like every ambitious college basketball coach would say about the NCAA tournament, "Get me to the finals and I will take my chances."

So, in answer to my friends questions about why Edwards is still in the race, you pick the best answer:

1. Winning politicians do not quit unless until they are stomped, or

2. Edwards really thinks he is going to win, or

3. There is a real chance Edwards' hard work and charm might make him a real contender before the winter is over.

D.G. Martin hosts UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (January 4) program features David Cecelski author of The Waterman's Song.

David Cecelski's The Waterman's Song, is the first major study of slavery in the maritime South, chronicling the world of slave and free black fishermen, pilots, rivermen, sailors, ferrymen, and other laborers who plied the vast inland waters of North Carolina from the Outer Banks to the upper reaches of tidewater rivers. Demonstrating the vitality and significance of this local African American maritime culture, the Durham resident intricately weaves its connections to the Afro-Caribbean, the relatively egalitarian work culture of seafaring men who visited nearby ports, and the revolutionary political tides that coursed throughout the black Atlantic. In this episode the native of the North Carolina coast shares how boatloads of slaves brought an insurgent, democratic vision into the political maelstrom of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

For more information about North Carolina Bookwatch and UNC-TV's other local productions, please visit UNC-TV's website at

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