Edwards Finds Traction in Trade

By running against NAFTA and its ilk, which Kerry supported, the North Carolina senator hit a strong nerve in Wisconsin

By Alexandra Starr

"Not so fast, John Kerry," John Edwards admonished his rival for the Democratic Presidential nomination during a Feb. 15 debate in Wisconsin. "I intend to fight with everything I've got." Sure enough, the North Carolinian's better-than-expected showing in the Feb. 17 Wisconsin vote means the primary season isn't over yet.

True, Edwards still has one only one primary victory -- in South Carolina -- to show for his efforts. Once again, he finished second to Kerry in the Badger State. But two factors contributed to Edwards' near-upset of the Democratic front-runner: visceral criticism of free-trade agreements and a last-minute endorsement by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the state's largest newspaper.

While Edwards essentially repeated the same stump speech he has given throughout the primary campaign, he added a line taking Kerry and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean to task for supporting NAFTA. It was a theme he returned to repeatedly during the debate, and he seemed to have hit a nerve with some Wisconsin voters.


  When the Teamsters and 18 other unions endorsed Kerry at an early-morning rally on the day of the Wisconsin primary, Guy Prickett, an assembler who said his company was on the verge of exporting 400 jobs abroad, mused that he would probably vote for Edwards. "He's a little more in touch," he explained. "I like his stance on trade. And he hasn't been in Washington so long. When people are there for a while, they get tainted."

Edwards will likely continue his criticism of free-trade agreements in the contests ahead. He's eager for a one-on-one showdown with Kerry. And trade policy is a tempting issue for differentiating his positions from those of the Massachusetts senator. The next big test will come on Mar. 2, when 11 states hold their primaries and caucuses.

With 19 years of experience on Capitol Hill, Kerry has compiled a solidly pro-trade record. In a time of economic distress, however, those votes are less popular with Democratic primary voters. And that dynamic provides an opening for Edwards. His mere five years in Congress means he hasn't racked up a long voting record on trade agreements. He wasn't in Congress when the still-controversial North American Free Trade Agreement was approved a decade ago.


  And the fact that Edwards' home state contains a substantial -- if shrinking -- textile industry was probably a major reason he opposed trade pacts with countries ranging from Singapore to Chile. He did, however, vote to grant China permanent normal trade relations in 2000.

Harping on the job dislocations that come with trade agreements helps Edwards in another way. Unlike Dean and Kerry, the North Carolinian comes from a working-class background. He constantly says on the stump that the impact of lost jobs "is personal to me." He talks about his itinerant upbringing, with his family moving from mill town to mill town across the South and the distress a mill closing had on the families whose livelihoods depended on it.

"No one has to explain this to me," Edwards declares. The implicit criticism: The independently wealthy Kerry doesn't have the same understanding of working people's travails.


  While Edwards narrowly missed nailing a victory that could have truly changed the race's dynamics, he could be helped by the fact that Dean appears on the verge of suspending his candidacy. The doctor's distant third place in Wisconsin and the defections of key staffers, including his campaign chairman, could spell the end of his run.

Of course, even though Edwards beat expectations in Wisconsin, Kerry remains the prohibitive front-runner. And with a compressed primary schedule, it'll be hard for Edwards to make up lost ground. Kerry has now won 15 of 17 primaries. Can any of his competitors stop that juggernaut?

Starr, Washington correspondent for BusinessWeek, is on the Democratic primary campaign trail

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.