Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is taking most of the GOP heat for trying to torpedo the nomination of U.S. District Court Judge Charles W. Pickering to the U.S. Court of Appeals. But the real leader of the Pickering Posse is a freshman senator from North Carolina with a silver tongue and a burning ambition to be President.
The expected defeat of Pickering on Mar. 14--despite a last-minute public appeal by President Bush--has made Senator John Edwards a hero to the Left and a new target of the Right. A prominent trial lawyer before ousting GOP incumbent Lauch Faircloth four years ago in his first bid for office, Edwards wowed fellow senators with a withering cross-examination of Pickering. His questioning of Pickering's civil rights record left the Mississippi judge visibly shaken--and left conservatives vowing revenge. "Mr. Edwards is putting his 2004 Presidential aspirations ahead of what is right," says Representative Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.). "He is too concerned about offending...members of the extreme Left."
Needless to say, such condemnations have buffed the 48-year-old senator's image in Democratic circles, where liberals worried that Edwards was too moderate. His admirers argue that his Southern roots, good looks, and ease on the stump make him a second Bill Clinton--minus the ethical defects. Three of the last four Democratic Presidents hailed from Dixie, and Edwards is a proven vote-getter from a key state.
But if he follows the lure of 2004, Edwards will have to pull off a tricky balancing act, because he is up for reelection that year. He'll have to appeal to a left-of-center Democratic Presidential primary constituency while maintaining his standing with centrist swing voters at home, who would decide his fate if his bid for nomination fell short.
While Edwards has cultivated an image as a New Democratic centrist, he has done plenty to endear himself to his party's left wing--even before he pickled Pickering. Pro-choice and pro-environment, he is a co-sponsor of legislation that would bar employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. And he was one of just two Southerners who voted against a constitutional amendment to criminalize flag-burning.
Those stands may be risky in a state that elected retro-conservative Senator Jesse Helms to five terms, but Edwards has remained popular by championing North Carolina pocketbook issues, such as promoting the interests of tobacco farmers and textile workers. What's more, his signature cause--a patients' bill of rights--resonates from the Smoky Mountains to the prosperous Charlotte suburbs. "I call Edwards a suburban populist," says Ferrel Guillory, a Southern-politics specialist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Like Clinton before him, Edwards resists ideological labels. "I don't put much stock in where I fall on the political spectrum," he says. "If you look at the issues I've been working on, those issues fall squarely in the middle and affect people's day-to-day lives."
Sounds like a potential Presidential contender. But if Edwards chooses to run, he'll have an uphill slog for the nomination. Unlike possible rivals Al Gore, Senator Joseph Lieberman (Conn.), and Senator John Kerry (Mass.), Edwards has no proven ability as a national fund-raiser. And while he's a fresh face, he's largely unknown, barely registering in early horse-race polls. Still, some Democrats are beginning to wonder whether the man who could dismantle a federal judge in a committee hearing has the raw talent to upset better-known primary opponents--and perhaps even a President who today seems invincible. What auto makers failed to do on their own, the United Auto Workers did for them: persuade senators not to jack up auto fuel-efficiency requirements. In a Mar. 13 vote, 19 Democrats joined 43 Republicans to back a measure that would transfer authority for Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) rules to the industry-friendly Transportation Dept.
It was a remarkable turnaround. Just a few weeks ago, a proposal by Senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) to increase CAFE standards appeared poised to win Senate passage. But carmakers and auto workers targeted reluctant Dems. Their pitch: The plan would cost jobs. Just before the vote, the UAW held massive rallies in Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
In the end, more than a dozen pro-labor liberals joined with GOP conservatives to thwart enviros. Among them: Missouri Senator Jean Carnahan, who needs labor's ground troops in her tough 2002 reelection battle, and Wisconsin's Democratic duo, Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl. "Senators chose their own political security over national security," says Kara Saul Rinaldi of the Alliance to Save Energy, a business group that promotes energy efficiency.
Gleeful Republicans think union members will become their mercenaries in ongoing battles with enviros. In the debate over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the GOP is working with the Teamsters to lure Democrats from the green lobby. An added bonus: The alliance could pay dividends at the polls in November.