- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 22, 2004

Republicans yesterday expressed concern that Sen. John Edwards has successfully lowered expectations for his performance in next week’s New Hampshire Democratic primary, even though he is spending cash like a man expecting to win the pivotal state.

“For a guy who says, ‘Aw shucks, I’ll just go to New Hampshire and see how things turn out,’ he’s spending a heck of a lot of money,” said a strategist for President Bush. “He’s spending to win in New Hampshire, not to just sort of show up and see how he does.”

As of Tuesday, the senator from North Carolina had spent more money in New Hampshire than former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean or Wesley Clark, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMAG, a consulting firm that tracks advertising expenditures. In fact, Mr. Edwards has spent almost as much as the front-runner, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Yet Mr. Edwards placed a distant fourth in a tracking poll conducted Monday through Wednesday by American Research Group. He garnered the support of just 9 percent of respondents, far behind Mr. Kerry at 27 percent, Mr. Dean at 22 percent and Mr. Clark at 19 percent.

“He’s done a very good job of lowering expectations,” added the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But if you look at what he’s spending there, the bar goes a lot higher and he ought to do really, really well.”

Reporters covering the New Hampshire primary have generally framed it as a three-way race among Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean — both from neighboring states — and Mr. Clark, the former Army general who skipped the Iowa caucuses to make his stand in New Hampshire. The press has been especially preoccupied with Mr. Dean’s emotional outburst in Iowa and sniping between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Clark over who has the best national-security credentials.

That has allowed Mr. Edwards, who made a surprisingly strong second-place finish in Iowa, to campaign largely under the radar screen in New Hampshire. Some pundits are expecting a poor performance in New Hampshire because he is dividing his time between that state and his native South Carolina, where expectations for Mr. Edwards are much higher.

Bush strategists have noticed that Mr. Edwards, who made millions as a trial lawyer before entering politics, performed well in the last three Democratic debates, including one last night. The senator’s upbeat attitude and refusal to snipe at his rivals has won over voters weary of the bloodletting in the protracted primary process.

Republicans also question the conventional wisdom that New Hampshire voters will necessarily support Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean because they are from neighboring states. Arguing that familiarity sometimes breeds contempt, they point out that voters might respond better to a relatively fresh face.

Finally, there is the question of which candidate can most successfully pivot from New Hampshire to South Carolina, which holds its primary Feb. 3. Mr. Kerry has all but ceded that state to Mr. Edwards by signaling he will concentrate on other states holding primaries that day.

That bolsters Mr. Edwards’ argument that he, as a Southerner, is better positioned than New Englanders like Mr. Kerry or Mr. Dean to win in all regions of the country. Bush strategists view the other Southerner in the race, Mr. Clark, as too gaffe-prone to capture the Democratic nomination.

While Republicans are not yet willing to predict an Edwards victory in New Hampshire, they are treating him much more seriously than five days ago, when they ranked him behind Mr. Dean, Mr. Kerry, Mr. Clark and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt. The Missouri Democrat dropped out after placing fourth — behind Mr. Dean — in Iowa. In fact, some Republicans believe the contest is shifting from Dean versus Clark to Kerry versus Edwards.

Between June 1 and Tuesday, Mr. Edwards spent $950,915 in New Hampshire, just less than the $966,285 spent by Mr. Kerry. That means Mr. Edwards outspent both rivals who skipped Iowa to concentrate on New Hampshire: Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who spent $827,223, and Mr. Clark, who spent $717,748.

The size of Mr. Edwards’ expenditure is notable because, unlike Mr. Kerry and Mr. Dean, he chose to accept public financing for his campaign. Therefore he must comply with rules set by the Federal Election Commission, which limits spending in New Hampshire to $729,600.

Although Mr. Edwards has exceeded that number, an FEC spokesman said exemptions to the rule allow a candidate to spend several hundred thousand dollars above the limit.

To increase his presence in New Hampshire, Mr. Edwards has also spent $682,517 in Boston, where TV stations broadcast his ads deep into neighboring New Hampshire.

In November, Mr. Edwards said he was disappointed by Mr. Dean’s decision to forgo public financing.

“I’m a strong believer in the campaign-finance system,” he told the Associated Press. “I think it brings integrity to the process.”

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