In a room packed with N.C. Democratic Party leaders, Sen. John Edwards’ reputation as the new golden boy of American politics is buffed to a bright sheen. It’s Friday night, Oct. 12, and the party faithful have paid $250 a plate to attend the annual Vance-Aycock dinner and rally at Asheville’s stately Grove Park Inn. At a table near the stage, the mention of Edwards, who apparently has his sights on the presidency, opens a torrent of praise.

“I love that man,” coos a middle-aged woman from Asheville. Why? “He’s so good looking.” A local Democratic activist who owns a political sign-making company compares Edwards to a skilled quarterback, capable of looking ahead to “find the holes” that no one else sees and then moving the political football forward, so to speak. “People say he reminds them of Kennedy, of JFK,” says a campaign consultant from Haywood County. “I think, and hope, that he’s more like Bobby Kennedy. He was my favorite.” A sheriff’s candidate from Western North Carolina who’s running a tough race this fall against a Republican incumbent says that Edwards “could help us deliver the South in 2004.”

When Edwards strides to the podium to make his remarks, most of the crowd rises for one of its many standing ovations. But a table of women in the center of the banquet hall, most of them seniors, stays seated and mute. A few of them lean on their elbows and fold their hands, and a couple shake their heads. From across the room, a few scattered “boos” are heard beneath the clapping. It’s a rare stir of dissent in a night of fervent political cheerleading.

Edwards knows why some of his constituents are unhappy. In a rousing and well-received speech that focuses on his domestic policy differences with the Bush administration and exhortations to get out the vote for Erskine Bowles and other candidates, the senator acknowledges that on one key issue, at least, he is out of synch with many of the Democrats in the room. “I’ve been walking around here shaking hands, making sure I spoke to everybody, and so far I think about 99 percent of you have told me what you think about Iraq,” he says.

“I know some of you don’t want to hear this, I understand that,” he adds. “But you need to hear it from me: I believe we cannot allow Saddam Hussein to have nuclear weapons. And I believe we have to work with our allies to do everything in our power, including the use of military power if necessary, to stop that. I hope and pray that that won’t happen, and I want you all to know, I have worried about this, I have fretted about this, I have prayed about this, and I believe in my heart that it’s the right thing to do.”

Then, his voice rising with each sentence, Edwards launches into a quick bit about the importance of defending civil liberties. “We cannot allow this administration, and John Ashcroft, in the name of a war on terrorism, to take away our rights, to take away our freedom, to take away our liberties,” pounding the podium and eliciting a sustained round of applause. From there, he goes back into stump-speech mode, contrasting his humble upbringing with President Bush’s lavish one.

Afterward, Pat Patton explains that she was one of the many who told Edwards he should stop banging the war drums over Iraq. Patton, 84, chairs the state Democrats’ 9th District in Charlotte and considers Edwards a friend and ally in most matters. Regarding the war question, “He knows what I think,” she says. “I told him, ‘I disagree with you wholeheartedly. I think you’re mistaken.’”

“I’m very much opposed to going to war with Iraq,” Patton says. “I have two grandsons who are cannon-fodder age, they’re twins who are 22, and war’s anathema to me. I’ve lived through three wars, you see.” Any new war, she argues, would be largely a political gambit–one that Edwards shouldn’t assist. “I feel very strongly this has nothing to do with 9-11; it’s really about 11-5. That’s when the election is. This is just to get Republicans elected. I think every person in the United States Senate is going to have second thoughts about it after Election Day.”

In making his case for supporting war with Iraq, Edwards, who helped lead the charge among prominent Democrats to back President Bush’s requested use of force resolution, says that while the United States should consult with and listen to its allies, “America has a responsibility to lead in the world,” and in the end, “we have to make tough choices.”

For a Democratic presidential aspirant trying to carve out national credibility and national security credentials in post-Sept. 11 America, the choices are tough indeed. Edwards’ apparent political aspirations could be among the reasons he staked out a tough position on Iraq–a stance that demonstrates the Democrats’ inability to find a coherent foreign policy approach that’s in real contrast to the Bush administration’s. They could also be why he’s become more versed in national security matters than a typical freshman senator, taking a spot on the Senate Intelligence Committee and assembling a team of advisors drawn from the ranks of what might be called the Democratic foreign policy establishment in exile.

Edwards’ harshest critics, especially those in the GOP, say the senator’s foreign policy pronouncements are simply political positioning. “It’s because he wants to run for president,” says Jonathan Jordan, communications director for the N.C. Republican Party. “I don’t think there’s any other reason he would be getting this involved in national security issues.”

Nonsense, Edwards says. “It doesn’t work to try to figure out what the political landscape is and where you need to be,” he told The Independent in an interview as he campaigned for local Democrats in late October. “On issues like this, issues that go to the core of American security, you need to decide what you think is right and stand up for that position. Something this important, there’s certainly going to be disagreements, but you have to do what you think is right.”

Those disagreements, especially those within Edwards’ own party, make the political landscape a potential minefield on issues of war and peace. As Edwards has become increasingly vocal about the need to go to war with Saddam Hussein, he may have alienated some of his mainstay supporters at home.

The tightrope
In case Edwards didn’t get the message in Asheville of how fine a tightrope he was going to have to walk, he was reminded of it two weeks later when he paid his third scouting visit to New Hampshire, a key presidential primary state. “Though Edwards and his Carolina drawl were warmly received, he was peppered at almost every stop with questions about his recent vote to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq,” The News and Observer reported.

Again Edwards, who usually gets nothing but accolades from Democratic crowds, found himself mounting a defense on the issue. “You may very well disagree with me about Iraq,” he told a crowd of 100 party activists at a meet-and-greet in the town of Warner. “I respect people who have a different view about this.” Again, he made his case for going to war, said he believed it in his heart, and then turned attention to safeguarding civil liberties.

Edwards says he’s not surprised at the resistance he’s encountered over the issue. “It’s exactly what I expected,” he says. “I hear it among activist Democrats everywhere in the country. The vast majority of activist Democrats across America do not support this Iraq resolution.”

These Democrats want to know why, especially in light of the mid-term elections, the senator worked to marshal congressional support for the Iraq resolution–and missed a prime opportunity to draw a line in the sand over the White House’s war powers and pre-emptive strike doctrine. “This has nothing to do with George Bush,” Edwards says. “I have become convinced, sitting on the Intelligence Committee, hour after hour, that we have to do something about this guy [Saddam Hussein]. I don’t like the way the president’s handling this. But, at the end of the day, I do believe we have to be willing to use military force.”

Whether Edwards makes his decisions based on his political calculations, his conscience, or both, his positions on international issues will be increasing scrutinized as he takes an ever-larger role on the national stage. Despite the hype and buzz that increasingly surround Edwards, he still has not confirmed that he will seek the White House in 2004 or any other year, but within a few months he is expected to make an announcement. And the senator’s extensive national networking and fundraising, particularly in early presidential primary states and Democratic power centers, leave the impression that he’s contemplating a presidential run sooner rather than later.

“I think what he’s doing is staking out his positions on a wide range of concerns that would have to be addressed by a presidential candidate and a president,” says Thad Beyle, a political science professor at UNC-Chapel Hill. “So it’s no surprise to see him out and letting people know where he stands on international affairs and foreign relations.”

Given America’s security concerns after Sept. 11, 2001, Edwards is taking his stands during a particularly vexing period for Democrats with national aspirations, political analysts say. Festering divisions have kept the party off balance when it comes to addressing questions of war and peace. “The Democrats have had a problem since the party split over the Vietnam War,” says John Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic and co-author of the new book, The Emerging Democratic Majority. “Since the early 1970s, the party has had a credibility crisis with more hawkish voters on national security.”

While that problem faded for a while in the post-Cold War world, the 9-11 attacks thrust national security issues back to renewed prominence, and at first glance, it bodes ill for Democratic candidates. A national USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll conducted two weeks ago turned up telling numbers that reflect earlier counts: 47 percent of respondents said they think Republicans do a “better job” of conducting foreign affairs, as opposed to 33 percent who believe Democrats do better. In response to a similar question about which party does better in the fight against terrorism, 53 percent picked the Republicans and 23 percent picked the Democrats.

Still, it’s too early to tell how much national security credentials will be expected of candidates in the next presidential campaign, Judis says. After all, Bill Clinton, who had next to zero foreign policy experience, beat the first President Bush, even though the 1992 election closely followed the U.S. victory against Iraq in the Gulf War. But for now, the political playing field seems markedly different. Those credentials “will matter more in 2004 than they’ve mattered in the previous three elections,” Judis says, and unless Edwards can rapidly and credibly bulk up on these issues, “he’ll be at a disadvantage to other senators on that particular score.”

Any Democrat, some prominent party strategists fear, will have a hard time challenging a sitting Republican president during a war–even an open-ended and nebulous conflict like the war against terrorism. The Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which favors moderating many of the party’s traditionally liberal stances and has convinced much of the party’s leadership to take a tougher tack in international affairs, has warned that the “national security gap” could hurt chances for reclaiming the White House. “With national security back at the center of U.S. politics, it’s imperative that Democrats rebuild their credibility on matters of national strength and resolve,” wrote Will Marshall, president of the DLC’s Progressive Policy Institute, in an essay published last March. The party, he argued, needs “to demonstrate resolve in facing up to clear and present dangers, especially in Iraq.”

Edwards may subscribe to that logic, as evidenced by his vociferous support for President Bush’s request for a congressional resolution backing use of force against Iraq. On Sept. 19, the day Bush made his request, Edwards told Fox News that “the Congress needs to act and act as quickly as possible,” adding that “I don’t think we should be bound by what the United Nations does.”

Edwards insists that “the debate over Iraq is not about politics,” as he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed during the debate over the resolution. “It is about national security.” But the fact remains that, as one Associated Press writer recently noted, the Iraq debate “has emerged as the first lively issue of Democratic presidential contest in 2004.”

It’s a lively issue, perhaps, but also one that found most Senate Democrats effectively lining up to support the Republican administration’s objectives. In voting for the resolution, Edwards was joined by all of the other senators who are considered potential presidential contenders, including Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Joseph Lieberman and even John Kerry, who earlier had distinguished himself by airing criticisms of the rush to strike Iraq.

Getting serious
The last and only time John Edwards ran for political office, national security mattered not a wit. Of course, the man Edwards defeated, one-term Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, had unseated Terry Sanford shortly after Sanford voted against the resolution to go to war against Iraq in 1991, a fact not lost on political strategists of either party. But in 1998’s Edwards vs. Faircloth, with no international crises on the radar, foreign policy went nearly unmentioned.

It wasn’t until 2000 that Edwards turned serious attention to national security issues. During the late summer of that year, Vice President Al Gore, Democratic presidential nominee, came calling.

Gore was looking for a running mate, and ultimately he opted for Lieberman. But he met several times with Edwards and reportedly gave him serious consideration, at least serious enough that pundits and pols immediately began assessing Edwards’ potential future on the national stage. The fact that he had been in Congress for a such a brief time–the “two-year thing”–was identified as his main weakness. Part of the problem, the analysts argued, was that Edwards had little to no experience in foreign affairs.

Shortly thereafter, Edwards made a determined effort to change that. Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, he dramatically stepped up his involvement in defense policy issues, delving into them more than any other serving freshman senator.

Early in 2001, Edwards joined the Senate Intelligence Committee. He did so at the urging of Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who told Edwards that his experience as a trial lawyer might come in handy there, and because, Edwards says, “this whole area fascinates me.” Senate Majority leader Tom Daschle arranged the appointment.

While Edwards has spent most of his time in the Senate working on a wide set of domestic policy issues, from health care to education to the environment, he has assiduously kept a hand in Congressional considerations of international affairs, and used the committee assignment to fill out his foreign policy résumé. In August 2001, for example, he traveled to the Middle East with a group of Congressional leaders. In press releases and public comments he pointed up how much the trip shaped his worldview.

Speaking before the American Jewish Congress in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23, Edwards said that his trip taught him that Israel is an “extraordinary, powerful, passionate ally in defense of freedom.” The “visit and what I learned from that visit has influenced the way I view what’s happened in America on Sept. 11 and since Sept. 11, because now America is confronted as the Israelis have been for so long on our own soil with a threat–a violent threat to our people. I think we can learn a lot from the way the Israelis have responded.” During the same speech, he also stressed the need to preserve individual freedoms, even as the national security agencies are strengthened, a theme he has returned to much lately.

A month after the trip to Israel, when bin Laden’s terror squad staged the airplane attacks on New York and Washington, Edwards was well-positioned, at least for a new arrival in the Senate, to jump into the debate about how the United States should respond. He began to introduce and support a wide range of legislative initiatives intended to safeguard America from attacks on many fronts. Like almost all of his colleagues, he voted for the USA PATRIOT Act, a sweeping set of anti-terrorism measures that have alarmed civil libertarians. And he went to bat for airport and seaport security, bioterrorism and cyberterrorism preparedness, and a host of other security measures.

In January, Edwards joined eight of his Senate colleagues, led by Lieberman, one of the most hawkish Democrats, on a trip to central Asia, making stops in Afghanistan and other countries. After visiting with U.S. troops and foreign leaders, Edwards told reporters that in regard to Iraq, “I think we are ultimately going to need a regime change there,” echoing the Bush administration’s line.

Despite his early and ardent support for “regime change,” Edwards says that he has many differences with President Bush when it comes to how the United States should go about attacking Iraq. In what his office billed as a major foreign policy address, Edwards outlined some of those differences in an Oct. 7 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Later the same day, President Bush appeared on national television to make his case for invading Iraq.

The administration, Edwards charged, is demonstrating “arrogance without purpose” by failing to rally its allies in the war against terror and acting too unilaterally. He also criticized the administration’s stance on imprisoning U.S. citizens as “enemy combatants” without legal rights, and floated a proposal for a new domestic security agency to take over the counterterrorism duties of the much-maligned FBI. In several subsequent interviews and public statements, Edwards has played up his problems with Bush’s approach to Iraq and other international issues.

While becoming increasingly outspoken on foreign policy, Edwards has hired a coterie of advisors with national security expertise, most of them hailing from the DLC’s school of “new Democrat” hawkishness.

Edwards’ chief of staff, Miles Lackey, is a Shelby, N.C., native who served as a special assistant to President Clinton and legislative director for Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser. Berger, who has advised Edwards and other Democratic presidential hopefuls on foreign policy matters, says he’s a “great admirer” of Edwards. And when Edwards convened a series of meetings with key backers in Pinehurst in September, Berger led the discussion of the international scene.

In May, Edwards hired Jonathan Prince, one of Clinton’s most prized speechwriters. Recently filed finance reports show that Edwards’ political action committee, the New American Optimists, has been paying Prince $7,500 per month to serve as a communications consultant, according to a recent article in The News and Observer.

The hiring may say a lot about Edwards’ eye on the future. Clinton, who spent most of his two terms in the White House tending to domestic issues and his sex scandal, rarely found reason to go into damage control in foreign policy, but when he did, he dispatched men like Prince. In 1999, when NATO was reeling from bad press over bombings of refugees in Kosovo, Clinton sent Prince to Europe to direct a public relations effort.

This summer Edwards also hired Derek Chollet, a trans-Atlantic relations expert who was a State Department speechwriter during the last two years of the Clinton administration and worked as an assistant to Richard Holbrooke, Clinton’s last ambassador to the United Nations. Chollet has helped Edwards sharpen his critiques of Bush administration foreign policy, and the senator’s speeches are starting to echo some of Chollet’s earlier commentary. This July, for example, Chollet wrote in a journal article that that the Bush administration’s unilateralism is alienating Europe: “[M]any Europeans (and even some Americans) are justified to think that the policy was driven by … arrogance without purpose.”

Interestingly, as recently as last year, Chollet was among those warning that overthrowing Saddam Hussein might immerse the United States in a Vietnam-like quagmire. In a March 18, 2001, Los Angeles Times op-ed, he wrote: “Once one gets into the business of deciding who leads a country, particularly when it means becoming involved in a violent overthrow and a possible commitment of U.S. ground troops, it is very difficult to get out. … Once [Hussein] is gone, the U.S. would be expected to provide stability and support until a viable Iraqi regime is in place. At best, this will mean years of money and assistance to Baghdad; at worst, it will mean involvement in an Iraqi civil war. Anyway you cut it, the U.S. would be in the middle of a dangerous mess, one that would likely rupture relations with the Arab world and create even bigger problems with our allies.”

Skillful performer
Whether or not Edwards appreciates concerns like these, he has, it seems, taken on an appreciation of some of the inherent problems in the war against terrorism. Chief among them is the failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to ward off attacks against the United States.

Edwards makes frequent mention of his service on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the joint House-Senate committee set up to look into intelligence failures that made America vulnerable on Sept. 11. The joint inquiry, which recently published an interim report, has been more aggressive and substantive than was expected, says Steven Aftergood, an intelligence specialist for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C. In recent years, congressional oversight of intelligence has been simply a matter of managing budgets, but this inquiry “has actually been quite productive, and I regard it as a success,” he says. “It marks a shift from the routine budget handling back into the investigative mode, and it has carried out the investigation without vituperation or resentment or any axe to grind, other than understanding what went wrong. And the products of that investigation, particularly the series of staff reports, have been outstanding.”

Edwards, Aftergood says, can take some credit for that: “He has performed skillfully and has added to the record through his questions.” However, Aftergood wonders if Edwards has drawn the right conclusions. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, the Democratic chairman of the Intelligence Committee, wound up voting against the Iraq war resolution, even though he is privy to the same intelligence Edwards cites in arguing the need for war. “Whatever persuaded Senator Edwards did not persuade his chairman,” Aftergood notes. “People can draw different conclusions, but the bottom line is that the information evidently is not persuasive enough all by itself.”

There is, it should be noted, one aspect on the war on terrorism in which Edwards has expressed some serious reservations and made a strong critique of what the Bush administration is doing wrong. Edwards has made a lot of noise about potential abuses of civil liberties during the war against terror.

And he’s shown that, when he chooses to, he is adept at pressing this issue. One of his shining moments, civil liberties advocates say, occurred when he publicly pressed Attorney General John Ashcroft about the finer points of the Bush administration’s plans for military tribunals. On Dec. 6 of last year, Ashcroft appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee, another key committee Edwards sits on, to discuss civil liberties and anti-terrorism.

It was there that Ashcroft launched a widely publicized broadside against his critics. “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists–for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve,” he said. “They give ammunition to America’s enemies and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

Edwards was one of few senators who stepped up to the plate and grilled Ashcroft. He started an exchange on the question of how the Bush administration’s proposed military tribunals might vote to execute a subject. After a testy back-and-forth, he established the fact that, according to the Bush administration’s plan, it would only take two out of three votes from a military tribunal to sentence a suspect to death.

Ashcroft said in his prepared statement that “our efforts have been carefully crafted to avoid infringing on constitutional rights while saving American lives.”

“We want very badly to make sure that you have the tools you need to protect the American people, including new laws and new measures,” Edwards responded. “But while we are protecting American lives, we also need to be certain that we protect American values and American principles. And it seems to me that these times of crisis and times of war are times when those principles and values are most at risk, when people get caught up in the passion of doing what’s necessary under the circumstances.”

Edwards has found Democratic audiences most receptive to this message during his visits to presidential primary states. The American Civil Liberties Union recently launched a campaign to roll back the parts of the USA PATRIOT Act that are most threatening to constitutional freedoms. Though he voted in favor of that legislation, the senator has many remaining opportunities to help change the law to reflect the ideals he has professed.

A miscalculation?
To be sure, most of Edwards’ legislative agenda has been domestic, and he probably thinks that his political future mostly rides on issues closer to home than Iraq. In August, he observed that despite all of the concerns about terrorism, “I think people are still focused on the issues they wake up every morning worried about–jobs, the economy, access to health care, the kind of education their kids are going to get in the public school system.”

Much of the Democratic party’s electoral base will be pleased with his performance on domestic issues: The liberal political group Americans for Democratic Action gave him a 95 percent rating for his votes in 2001.

And yet, the senator has asserted himself on national security issues in a way that puts him on the conservative side of the political spectrum–and if he’s doing that for political expediency, he might be making a tragic miscalculation: On these issues, he’s alienating part of the base of activist Democrats he would need to make his mark in the 2004 presidential primaries.

“It could very well be that this is not going to fly as well in the Democratic primaries, and probably will fly better in the general election,” says Beyle, the UNC-Chapel Hill professor. “So that could be kind of a misreading as to what your audience is. I think it’s a calculated risk. Obviously they’ve thought this through.”

Even if Edwards’ hawkish stance doesn’t prove to be risky, it may prove to be unnecessary, politically speaking. At this point in his rise, the greatest irony may be that the Democrats won’t necessarily need a hawk to regain the White House in November 2004. Nobody knows what the world will look like then, but for now, even in the heated environment of the war against terrorism, Americans, it seems, are still more focused on domestic issues than foreign ones.

What’s more, the electorate doesn’t seem to be rallying in favor of war with Iraq. In fact, a survey conducted for National Public Radio by Greenburg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic polling firm, two weeks before Election Day, found that “voters who cite Iraq as a voting issue are much more likely to be Democrats who are cautious about the war,” according to a summary released by the firm.

And then there’s the telling example of how the recently deceased Minnesota Democrat, Sen. Paul Wellstone, fared after he cast a vote against the Iraq resolution. Confounding the pundits and the conventional wisdom, Wellstone’s polling numbers climbed a bit, and his campaign took in a dramatic rise in donations. A Reuters dispatch filed the day before he died in a plane crash was titled: “Democratic Senator Finds Anti-War Vote Does Not Hurt.” EndBlock