- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 29, 2004

The other day, President Bush went to Florida for NASCAR’s Daytona 500. His likely Democratic rival, John Kerry, did not approve. “We don’t need,” he declared, in the portentous drone he’s been perfecting for three decades, “a president who says, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.’ We need a president who says, ‘America, let’s start our economy.’”

Hmm. If this is the best material Mr. Kerry’s high-price consultants can provide, it’s going to be a long, long while from here to November. It’s unlikely that any but the most partisan Democrats can stomach nine months of a candidate who’s Al Gore without the personal charm and affable public-speaking style. The Massachusetts senator with the patrician manner and a face as long as his one-liners is the Default Democrat. He’s the guy the party’s voters fell back on after concluding that Howard Dean, the surging Vermonster, was, in the pithy summation of union boss Gerald McEntee, “nuts.” And Mr. McEntee was a Dean supporter.

So Democrats decided that Mr. Kerry was more “electable.” Which he is, next to Mr. Dean — in the same way that, if Saddam Hussein and Robert Mugabe entered the Iowa caucuses, Farmer Bob would be Mister Electable. But, once Saddam had thrown in the towel and endorsed Dennis Kucinich, you’d start wondering whether Bob Mugabe was really the best you could do.

So, having anointed Mr. Kerry as the unDean, a significant chunk of Democrats began looking around for the unKerry. The only guy available is John Edwards, the pretty-boy trial lawyer from North Carolina. He’s 50 but looks about 13, which is kind of refreshing after that strange feeling you get a third of a way into Mr. Kerry’s stump speech that your body’s atrophying and crumbling to dust.

In the Wisconsin primary, Mr. Edwards ran Kerry a strong second and came bouncing out on stage, his fabulous bangs dancing in the air like a Charlie’s Angels title sequence. By contrast, the nominal victor, Mr. Kerry, cranked out the usual boilerplate banalities: “The motto of the state of Wisconsin is ‘Forward,’ and I want to thank the state of Wisconsin for moving this cause and this campaign forward tonight here in this great state. … Tonight I say to all of America, get ready. A new day is on the way.”

It may be a new day, but already a lot of us are finding it hard to stay awake. As the New York Times put it, when Mr. Kerry “bumped Mr. Edwards’ own ebullient speech off the air, it was as if a pep rally had morphed into math class.” When you’re too dull a Democrat even for the New York Times, you’ve got a problem.

On the other hand, if Mr. Edwards is the unKerry, he’s developing a distressing habit of never doing quite well enough. If Mr. Edwards were to come a narrow first instead of a close second, the Kerry bubble would burst: He wins because he’s seen as likely to win. Alas, coming a close second is pretty much all Mr. Edwards does. He was a close second in Iowa, a close second in Oklahoma, a close second in Wisconsin. The only difference is that coming a close second in an eight-man race in late January is more impressive than coming a close second in a four-man race in early March. Given that Messrs Gephardt, Lieberman, Dean and Clark are gone, you would think it would be impossible for Mr. Edwards to come worse than second, but this week in Hawaii he managed to come a poor third, below Dennis Kucinich.

Nice guys finish last. Look at Hawaii, where Joe Lieberman, in a burst of posthumous “Joe-mentum”, came last with five votes and the much coveted zero percent. But Mr. Lieberman’s out of the race; he can afford to be nice and do poorly. Mr. Edwards really has to win something, and he doesn’t seem to have the wit or energy to pull those extra few thousands votes that would put him over the top.

So the race has come down to aweak default candidate vs. aglamorous insurgent who’s not quite glamorous enough to insurge sufficiently.

Other than that, there’s not much to choose between them. Both men are enormously wealthy. Mr. Kerry was a blueblood of relatively minor means who married a woman worth $300 million and then traded up to a woman worth $500 million. If I were Teresa Heinz Kerry I would be worried, now Massachusetts is introducing gay marriage, that hubby may start giving the come-hither look to some of the state’s elderly bachelor billionaires.

By contrast, John Edwards had a dirt poor, hardscrabble childhood but managed to sue his way out of poverty. He’s made $25 million just from suing tobacco companies. His is an inspirational message: If I can do it, the rest of you haven’t a hope in hell. But fortunately I’ve got a thousand new government programs and micro-initiatives that will partially ameliorate your hopeless mediocrity. (I paraphrase.)

My favorite line in the Edwards spiel comes about two-thirds in, when after outlining the regulatory hell in which he’s going to ensnare banks, the pharmaceutical industry, etc, he confides, “But I’ll be honest with you. I don’t think I can change this country by myself.” It’s good to know the other 280 million Americans aren’t entirely redundant. His basic pitch is that the entire electorate are victims and his candidacy is the all-time biggest class-action suit on your behalf.

Mr. Edwards is condescending. Mr. Kerry is far too grand to condescend. But both are agreed that the United States is a vast wasteland of unemployed, shivering, diseased losers. For single-issue guys like me, Mr. Edwards barely says a word on Iraq and the war, though I’m inclined to think he’d be better than Mr. Kerry. The latter seems eager to do whatever French President Jacques Chirac and the United Nations want, whereas with Mr. Edwards there’s always the possibility he’ll wind up suing the Security Council for emotional distress. More importantly, Mr. Edwards is sunny, albeit in a grotesque and mawkish way. And, as a general rule, the sunnier disposition wins (see Bush/Gore, Clinton/Dole, Reagan/Mondale).

It’s true that in his five years in Washington Mr. Edwards hasn’t accomplished anything, but then neither has Mr. Kerry and he’s been there four times as long. If Pretty Boy were to win somewhere, anywhere, on Super Tuesday, the mantle of inevitability would fall away from Mr. Kerry. But it’s looking more and more as if Mr. Edwards has left it too late, and the Democrats will be stuck with the default guy. By April, they’re going to be awful sick of him.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator, and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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