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Edwards goes where pundits fear to tread

January 21, 2008 |  8:58 pm

Throughout the summer and into the fall, there was one consensus among the Republican presidential contenders when they met to debate -- Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee, and the GOP needed to judge which of its candidates could best carry the party's flag against her.

The anointing of Clinton by the Republicans began to fade even before Barack Obama's win in the Iowa caucuses (which, though it may seem like ancient history, occurred less than three weeks ago). And tonight, a bit of role reversal occurred -- the Democrats offered a prediction (albeit a tentative one) on the outcome of the scrambled GOP contest.

John Edwards broached the matter at his party's feisty debate in South Carolina, saying, "It's becoming increasingly likely, I think, that John McCain is going to be the Republican candidate."

That no doubt took aback Mitt Romney and his aides (if they were listening). Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani also would quibble with the call. But Edwards had a self-interested rationale for ignoring those other Republicans.

With conventional wisdom holding that McCain would run the GOP's strongest race in the fall -- and threaten to topple assumptions that this is going to be a Democratic year -- Edwards wanted to press the case ...

that he is the Democrat best able to take him on.

The odds against Edwards emerging as his party's standard-bearer are increasingly long (indeed, realistically his chances have slipped to the proverbial slim and none). But intriguingly, Clinton and Barack Obama -- one of whom will be the nominee, barring an unforeseeable turn of events -- accepted Edwards' comment about McCain. And each engaged him on why he or she would run the strongest race against the Arizonan.

Edwards marshaled his arguments somewhat gingerly. His key line was this: "I grew up in the rural South, in small towns all across the rural South, and I think I can go everywhere and compete head to head with John McCain."

He insisted, before making that assertion, that what he sees as his advantage in a contest with McCain "has nothing to do with race and gender, let me be really clear about that."

But, of course, it does, as he seemed to tacitly acknowledge in his very next line: "It's amazing now being the white male" among the remaining Democratic candidates.

Obama, sensing the awkwardness Edwards was feeling, sought to offer some empathy. He interjected: "Feeling all defensive about it? John, it's all right, man."

It was an exchange that not too long ago would have been hard to imagine in American politics.

-- Don Frederick   

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