If there was a likely beneficiary from Monday's heated Democratic debate, it was John Edwards. The angry man of the Iowa caucuses turned peacemaker as rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traded personal insults and questioned each other's honesty and character.
Edwards needs whatever help he can get at this stage in the Democratic presidential race. His campaign is starved for attention. The Obama-Clinton (or, more accurately, Clintons) story seemingly has consumed all the time, space, attention and resources of the massive press and blogosphere corps following the race.
Edwards aides understandably complain every way they know how about the lack of attention the party's former vice presidential nominee now receives. By what measure of fairness should someone who has put out some of the boldest ideas of the campaign and who is the only southern candidate in the first southern primary be turned into the non-candidate, they ask?
The frustrations are understandable, as is the fact that attention has shifted away from Edwards. He lost the one state that was considered a must-win -- Iowa -- and fell further back in New Hampshire five days later. In Nevada, as he puts it so eloquently, Edwards "got my butt kicked." He registered at just four percent in Nevada under the complex mathematical calculations that produce the final numbers. Edwards knows the price of admission to the finals is a victory in the early rounds.
His debate performance in Myrtle Beach was one of his most unusual. He never shrinks from debate confrontation. In New Hampshire, he joined with Obama to attack Clinton mercilessly. One of his most senior advisers believed it was a big mistake. Two men attacking one woman is an equation for trouble. Clinton benefited and Edwards (and as it turned out Obama) did not.
On Monday, Edwards was as tough on Obama as he was on Clinton -- perhaps tougher. Obama seemed surprised to find himself pinned between his two rivals. Edwards seemed genuinely puzzled by some of Obama's references to him as the lone white man among the leading candidates.
Edwards continues to fight and to campaign in South Carolina, which he won four years ago. He has vowed to carry on the fight to the Democratic national convention. If he can manage to continue to hit 15 percent in upcoming contests, he can accumulate delegates and then perhaps play powerbroker down the line.
At this point, however, the other candidates and campaigns are clearly beginning to look beyond the point at which he is a viable candidate.
Here's one example. On Monday morning, all the candidates participated in a ceremony commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the state capitol. The lengthy program and the cold weather drove the candidates inside for awhile. The campaigns tend to operate in their own orbits and truly intersect only on rare occasions. This was one.
As the candidates waited, one Edwards staffer was approached first by Clinton's campaign and then later by Obama's campaign, looking to gauge the staffer's interest in joining up at some point in the near future. The staffer was both flattered and offended by the audacity of the approaches.
But there is more than talk at the staff level. Over the weekend, Edwards had conversations with both Clinton and Obama. Aides to the candidates will not describe the content of the calls and there is some confusion about who initiated them. One report has Edwards calling Clinton to congratulate her on her after her victory in Nevada. The fact that the calls took place at all highlights the fluidity of the Democratic race at this point and the likelihood that both Clinton and Obama are vitally interested in Edwards's future.
The weekend conversations were followed by a much buzzed about green room tête-à-tête between Clinton and Edwards back stage after Monday's debate -- a highly unusual event given a relationship between the two that has been exceedingly frosty. Is there a rapprochement between the two underway? If so, it would likely be to Clinton's benefit.
Obama and Edwards have been more natural allies in the Democratic race, with both pushing anti-Washington establishment messages against Clinton, whom they have painted as the embodiment of the cozy and sometimes corrupting nexus between politicians, lobbyists and corporate influence.
The Edwards constituency might gravitate toward Obama if the former North Carolina senator is no longer seen as truly viable. But some of those white men who have sided with him in states like Iowa and likely here in South Carolina might find their way to Clinton's column.
"This is personal for me," Edwards often says about fighting big corporations or about the issue of race or about trying to eliminate poverty. He hopes that message will find resonance on Saturday in the state where he was born. If it doesn't, then he will have a very personal decision to consider, with his two rivals keenly interested in the outcome.
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