For Edwards, a Role as Possible Kingmaker

By: Wall Street Journal

Democrat May Grab Enough Delegates To Sway Convention

LANCASTER, S.C. — As the banjo strains of his warm-up act faded to silence, John Edwards took the stage, telling the 200 assembled supporters the truth. “The truth is, I am the underdog,” he said. “Everybody knows it.”

Indeed, the question among many Democratic Party officials is this: Why doesn’t Mr. Edwards fold his presidential campaign tent, just as Rep. Dennis Kucinich formally plans to do today, and Joseph Biden, Christopher Dodd and Bill Richardson have already done? Far behind Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Mr. Edwards has all but dropped from sight. Generally ignored by the national press and with a campaign bankroll a fraction the size of his rivals’, it would seem that Mr. Edwards is poised to be buried on Feb. 5 when voters in 22 states cast ballots, putting 1,700 of the 4,049 Democratic delegates in play.

With South Carolina’s Democratic primary set for Saturday, consider the numbers so far: Mr. Edwards sits far behind in the delegate count, with 18, compared with 38 for Mr. Obama and 36 for Mrs. Clinton. A poll in South Carolina shows him drawing within striking distance of Mrs. Clinton for second place in that state’s primary. Still, the former North Carolina senator would seem to have to make up tremendous ground to stay competitive for the nomination.

But Edwards’s campaign operatives say the math could still break their way. If Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton continue running close and neither succeeds in capturing at least 50%, or 2,025, of the delegates, Mr. Edwards has a chance to play kingmaker at this summer’s Democratic convention in Denver. To be sure, a brokered convention almost never happens. But 2008 is turning out to be an unusual political year and few prognosticators are rejecting the idea out of hand.

It is the sort of math that Joe Trippi, senior adviser to Mr. Edwards, said the campaign is banking on. “I think 200 delegates on Feb. 6 is our over-under,” Mr. Trippi said. Although he continues to insist that Mr. Edwards has a chance at securing the nomination, Mr. Trippi concedes it is a long shot. More probable: arriving at the convention with enough delegates to tip the scales in favor of either Mrs. Clinton or Mr. Obama. “Edwards is the primary force keeping Clinton under 50%,” Mr. Trippi said. “Worst case? We go to the convention as the peacemaker, kingmaker, whatever you want to call it.”

As Mr. Trippi figures it, if Mr. Edwards gets more than 200 delegates through the Feb. 5 contests — just more than 10% of the total 1,700 delegates at stake that day — he has a long-shot chance of playing kingmaker. If he gets 350, Mr. Trippi said Mr. Edwards is almost assured of playing that role.

Reaching 300 delegates isn’t inconceivable for Mr. Edwards, who has managed to snatch around 20% of the delegate total so far. A poll released yesterday by Reuters/C-Span/Zogby shows him with 19% support in South Carolina. Recent polls in delegate-rich states such as California, Pennsylvania and New Jersey give him about 10% of the vote. Nationally, a poll of likely voters conducted this week by The Wall Street Journal shows Mr. Edwards getting 12% support among Democrats.

What Mr. Edwards would want in exchange for convention support remains conjecture. Conventional wisdom holds that he would refuse a vice presidential spot after serving in that role in John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, although Mr. Edwards himself hasn’t addressed the question. He continues to insist publicly that his only goal is the nomination — not a surprise, considering that saying otherwise could hurt his fund raising.

The only clue he has offered is indirect: The populist who announced his campaign in New Orleans has said that poverty issues remain his “life’s work.” It is conceivable Mr. Edwards could demand the insertion of one or several antipoverty planks in the party’s platform.

If Mr. Edwards were running as a Republican, he likely wouldn’t be able to play a spoiler role. That nominating contest includes several states where the first-place finisher captures all of the delegates, no matter how close the race is. But Democrats award delegates proportionally, generally by congressional district, meaning that Mr. Edwards could get a delegate simply by taking California’s Fresno area, for example.

One unknown: Of the 4,049 delegates who will take part in the Democratic nominating convention, about 800 of them are “super delegates,” mostly elected officials and party bosses, who aren’t required to pledge themselves to a particular candidate. Although most of these super delegates are undecided, if history is a guide, many will flock to any candidate who stages a late surge.

To work the plan, Mr. Edwards likely will have to continue to run a credible campaign and do well in forums such as the nationally televised Democratic debate set for Thursday in Los Angeles. Otherwise, campaign cash might dry up.

His operatives said money hasn’t been a problem: more than $3 million in donations have come in this month. And the fact that Mr. Edwards has opted for public financing — thought to be a disadvantage in a presidential contest because of the fund-raising collars it imposes — could be an advantage if the goal is to challenge the nomination of someone else. Opting for public financing means taxpayers match most of the cash contributions a candidate receives.

As the candidates gird for Feb. 5, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are expected to focus on large states such as California (370 delegates), New York (232 delegates) and Illinois (153 delegates). Look for Mr. Edwards to take the contrarian route: Mr. Trippi said the campaign has strong support in smaller states such as Oklahoma, Kansas, Idaho, Missouri and Alaska. The Feb. 5 campaign won’t include television-ad buys, Mr. Trippi said.

“Every delegate we get over 200 on Feb. 5 is a step toward a scenario that at worst gives us a shot at influencing the final outcome of this race,” Mr. Trippi said.

Write to Christopher Cooper at

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