DECORAH, Iowa — All morning, campaigns in Iowa scrambled to respond to the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan. Joseph Biden held a press conference. Bill Richardson called for the country’s president, Pervez Musharraf, to step down. Hillary Clinton shared personal remembrances of Bhutto.
And just as pundits were predicting who caucus goers would turn to in the period of instability — perhaps candidates of experience Clinton or John McCain — John Edwards actually got on the phone with Musharraf, speaking to the embattled leader as his campaign bus lumbered its way through one small town to another.
“I urged him to continue the democratization process,” Edwards said to a crowd packed into an ampitheatre at Luther College in Decorah, a riverfront community in northeast Iowa. He said that he also urged Musharraf to allow independent investigators into the country.
“This is a time for America to be a strong and calming influence,” he added, pacing back and forth in a tightly fit blue suit, sky-blue tie and hiking boots.
Will his phone call make a difference? It either showed Edwards’ presidential chutzpah, or, to cynics, an act of political jockeying. As the race increasingly turned inward toward domestic issues in recent weeks, suddenly it is about foreign policy again. The chat with Musharraf undoubtedly helped him stand out on a day when just about the entire field has descended on Iowa with one week left to go before the caucus.
In fact, residents here are so bombarded with ads and phone calls and “messages” that it is hard to tell one from the other — all are now promising “change,” a buzzword repeated so many different times by candidates that it’d make for a good drinking game.
Earlier in the day, as Edwards was finishing up an appearance at a bar-restaurant, Mulligan’s, in Waukon, Iowa, an elderly man exited the event shaking his head. A campaign worker asked if the man would sign up and caucus for him. He said no. “I haven’t heard anything different,” the man said.
the next event, the town hall meeting at Luther College, Edwards appeared a bit more energetic and emotional. Perhaps amped up after talking to Musharraf, or from a sugar high after making a pit stop at a local fast food joint for a sundae (right), Edwards raised his voice a few octaves so everyone could hear his populist message.
Railing against lopsided CEO salaries, corporate greed and insurance and drug company influence, he told the crowd, “When will this stop? I’m telling you, this will stop when we stand up.”
He cited Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman as three presidents who changed the system even though they were “vilified by corporate America.”
He took aim at his two main rivals — Hillary Clinton, for being beholden to these corporate interests; and Barack Obama, for living in the “fantasy” that “nice words and sitting at a table with them” will change anything.
“They will lose their power when we take their power from them,” he said.
What is a bit surprising is that Edwards, whose appearance all but projects sunny disposition, sprinkles very little humor in his appearances. Gone are the celebrities — Kevin Bacon and Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne, who campaigned with him in recent weeks. With just days to go, it is now serious business.
In fact, Edwards seemed a little irritated when a woman, after asking him a question, started snapping pictures of him. Politely, he told her it was hard to answer with a camera in his face.
No politician really is unpolished, and few are unscripted, but his effort at least appearing so played well in this room.
Among the possible converts was Renee Bay, an administration official at the college, who said that she plans to caucus for Mitt Romney but, should her candidate drop out, may eventually switch parties for Edwards.
What resonated were his vows to fight powerful interests, i.e. the little guy vs. the corporate behemoth. And that could prove surprisingly strong in rural areas of the state, where Edwards is said to have a particularly adept organization.
“I like what he says about big companies and corporation, and moving jobs overseas, really troubles me,” Bay said. “I didn’t hear him say anything about immigration and that is a big issue for me. But other things that he said make me want to learn more about him as a candidate.”
No one asked him about Pakistan, other than a few journalists at a later press conference.
Then, he was asked whether his phone call could add a little foreign policy gravitas to his campaign. Edwards said, “Oh, I don’t know. I think the most important thing is to understand what is happening and the complex nature of the problems there, and to be visionary about what America should be doing. What we need to be providing is stability and calmness and strength, principal strength.”