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Edwards Nearly Upsets Kerry in Wisconsin; Dean Attacks Democratic Establishment

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Sen. John Kerry won the Wisconsin primary last night by 6% after Sen. John Edwards made a last minute surge. Howard Dean, who came in a distant third and said he is staying in the race, afterwards launched a scathing attack on the Democratic Party establishment and the other Democratic candidates. [includes transcript]

Last night’s Wisconsin primary shook up the race for the Democratic Party nomination. Senator John Edwards made a last minute surge against John Kerry, nearly beating the Massachusetts Senator. In the end Kerry beat out Edwards by 6 percentage points. But what is significant is that Edwards was polling at just 9 percent as early as last week. In Wisconsin, Edwards hammered away at the themes of jobs and opposition to so-called free trade agreements like NAFTA. In a moment, we will be joined by journalist John Nichols in Madison, Wisconsin.

But first, let’s go to the comments of Howard Dean last night. Dean, who came in a distant third, had told his supporters that he would quit the race if he did not win in Wisconsin. But he later backed away from that statement. Today there’s a report in the LA Times that says Dean will end his campaign but will stay in the race until the convention so that his supporters can continue to vote for him and have a say at the convention. Last night, Dean launched a scathing attack on the Democratic Party establishment and the other Democratic candidates.

  • John Nichols, editor of The Capitol Times newspaper in Madison, WI, as well as a correspondent for The Nation magazine. He has spent the last several days following the candidates as they campaigned across Wisconsin. He joins us on the line from Madison.
  • Howard Dean, speaking in Madison, Wisconsin on February 17, 2004.
  • Democratic presidential debate, excerpt of the candidates in Milwaukee, WI on February 15, 2004.
    Read transcript of the debate.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, as we turn now to John Nichols, who was following John Edwards on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. He is editor of the Capital Times newspaper in Madison, and a correspondent for The Nation magazine. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

JOHN NICHOLS: It is a pleasure to be with you. What an interesting result.

AMY GOODMAN: From polls saying that Senator John Edwards was a distant third polling around 9% to — well coming in second, giving Kerry a run for his money.


AMY GOODMAN: What happened?

JOHN NICHOLS: Well, I think a lot happened. The most important thing is that we finally, after a number of weeks in which the candidates were drawn to many different states, and it was sort of an unfocused contest, you focus the contest down to one state. You return to the situation we were in before Iowa. And the candidates all gave a good deal of time to Wisconsin. Dean essentially camped out in the state. But Edwards didn’t just give time. He also gave a theme. He said about ten days ago that he was going to make a stand in Wisconsin against Kerry. He was going to try to make it a two-person race. And he was going to try to do that by focusing on essentially a single issue. And that was U.S. trade policy and globalization. And he really did do it. It wasn’t just talk. He restructured his speech to bring in a great many references to trade policy, not just NAFTA, but fast track and CAFTA and the Australian trade deal that’s currently up. He restructured his television ads. For one of the first times in political history, really, at least going back to late 1980’s, when Dick Gephardt did it in Iowa, a candidate ran his entire television campaign focused on an economic issue, in this case the issue was trade. It was just stunning. The response around the state was electric. You saw people coming to the Edwards rallies just to check him out. They were interested. And remember, in small town Wisconsin, they don’t see that many presidential candidates. But what they heard, really appealed to them. And it wasn’t just the trade; the trade was the thing that got people in the door. There was a great resonance in his two America’s message. He talked about real class distinctions in the United States. And he did one other thing that was very interesting. Wisconsin is an overwhelmingly white state. And yet, at every rally, no matter where he was, in the smallest rural towns, or in the cities, wherever, he talked about race. And he did so very bluntly, and he got incredibly good responses. It was a fascinating campaign to watch. There’s no question that Edward read the situation right.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to John Nichols, of The Nation and the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. The “Capital Times” has endorsed John Edwards. It was interesting last night to see the victory speeches, even for those who didn’t win like John Edwards because he moved so high up at the end. It certainly was a victory speech of sorts. Edwards started, but then Kerry gave his speech. And of course all the cameras moved to Kerry. And as we listened to Kerry, it was as if we had not moved away from Edwards, the famous two Americas speech. John Kerry was giving it.

JOHN NICHOLS: You’re so exactly right. I was bouncing between these different events, and if you closed your eyes, and imagined that John Kerry was an interesting speaker, which is a big leap, his lines were straight out of Edwards. He grabbed the two America’s theme. He grabbed the trade theme. John Kerry, who is one of the most passionate backers of free trade, whose voting record essentially parallels that of the Bush Administration’s demands on this issue. Suddenly, he’s talking about the need to re-examine NAFTA, to rewrite these trade deals, to come at it with pro-worker, pro-environment , pro-human rights stance. He also, for the first time that I know of, made some explicit references to the issue of poverty. Remember, that’s been a theme of Edwards from the start. The United States has to address the fact that 35 million Americans live in poverty.

AMY GOODMAN: As we look at the Wisconsin primary results: John Kerry with40%, John Edwards with 34%, and Howard Dean, a distant third with 18%. We are on the line with John Nichols, of the Madison Times and The Nation magazine. John, we just heard Edwards and Kerry debating the issue of trade I’m looking at a piece from almost a year ago from the Charlotte Observer which quotes Edwards’ campaign pollster, Harrison Hickman, saying that the record shows that Edwards has voted more conservative than all but ten other Democratic Senators, and he has supported Bush on homeland security and the war with Iraq. Hickman, a North Carolina native, said by any measure, he is closer to the center than the left, just like the state of North Carolina. It’s also something Ambassador Carol Moseley Braun charged in one of the debates, saying he is one of the most conservative democratic senators in the Senate. He objected to this, but she is saying exactly what his pollster was saying.

JOHN NICHOLS: I think you’re right. I think his pollster is right on some issues. A lot of these measures are complex. One of the things is that in the Congressional quarterly studies and some of the others, Edwards has a record of voting against President Bush more than any other Democrat. So if you look at that, you can make the case that Edwards isn’t a conservative. You can look at some other measures: Homeland Security, the war, Patriot Act, and a number of other initiatives, and you see that Edwards, like Kerry, voted with Bush. I think people have to be careful about seeing John Edwards as this great left wing choice, or even a particularly progressive choice. He came into this race much like Howard Dean, who came in as an extremely conservative former Governor of Vermont, and evolved as the race went on. I think the one thing about Edwards that’s been striking, is that whether it’s sincere or not, when he speaks in public, he comes off as someone who is aware of the fact that there is a deep class divide in the United States. He talks about it a lot. He is also comes off as someone who is aware that an awfully lot of race issues that remain profoundly unsettled. And I think people are responding more to that certainly more than his record. I don’t think most people know the guy’s record any more than they know Kerry’s. I think what’s coming through on the trail at least is that Edwards is talking about stuff that people understand in a very visceral, very real sense. And none of the other candidates, with the exception of Al Sharpton, has kind of focused in so closely on these race and class issues.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve been covering Howard Dean extensively in Iowa. Where do you see him going now? The Los Angeles Times is saying that he might not campaign, but he also might not pull out. He will let the final decision be decided at the convention, giving that power to the people who have been supporting him all of this time.

JOHN NICHOLS: Dean is in a very complex place. He’s like General Lee after Gettysburg. He has a very large army that’s very hard to de-mobilize, but he hasn’t won, so he has to figure out what to do. The fact is that Dean’s supporters are incredibly passionate. I have been talking to a lot of them in the last few days, not just in Wisconsin, but also around the country. There are a lot of people who really believe in the guy, and who have profound doubts about Kerry, Edwards, and most of the leadership of the Democratic Party. Dean this is in a powerful position. Despite the fact that he didn’t win, he consistently was posting in a lot of these primaries, 10-25% finishes. So, you know that in a lot of states across the country, he has a substantial base of supporters. He is going to give a press conference at noon today. Nobody is quite sure what he’s going to say. He has been quite erratic, as regards to the direction of the campaign in the last week or so. But there are actually two things he could possibly do. I don’t think there’s a chance that he could completely end the campaign, say it’s over, and he’s getting out. One is he could suspend the campaign. Many candidates do this. You say, look, I’m not really going to campaign much anymore, but I’m going to let my name remain on the ballot, and if my supporters in particular states want to campaign for me, they can. Paul Tsongas did that in 1992, and actually ended up getting a lot of delegates after he stopped campaigning. The other option he has, is to put the campaign on hold, not officially finish it, but say, look, don’t go out and vote for me, vote for one of these other guys. Today, both Edwards and Kerry are lobbying Dean very passionately for an endorsement. I can tell that you n the last few days in Wisconsin, when Dean talked about the candidates, he was quite harsh on Kerry, and relatively enthusiastic about Edwards. He said a lot of positive things about Edwards. So, there’s some speculation that it’s possible he might make an endorsement, or encourage his supporters to at least look at one of these other candidates. My sense is that Edwards probably has the upper hand among the two, but you really have to tune in at noon eastern time because, with Howard Dean, things do change along the way. You are never quite sure until he says it, where he’s going to head.

AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, thanks for being with us. This is Democracy Now!

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