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Can John Edwards Appeal To The Poor And The Middle Class?

Laconia, New Hampshire--After an apparently lackluster morning of campaigning in Nashua on Wednesday, John Edwards drew a large crowd to an event here in Laconia, the resort town that sits along Lake Winnipesaukee. Around 200 people crammed into the third floor of a colonial-style meeting house, saved from near-asphyxiation by a handful of partially opened windows. But despite waiting more than an hour for the perennially tardy candidate to arrive, few in attendance seemed to mind. And when Edwards spoke, the crowd embraced him with frequent, enthusiastic applause.

I haven't seen enough of these events to put this event into proper perspective--or to tell you what it means for Edwards prospects in the upcoming primary. But maybe that's just as well, since it also meant I was hearing the substance of Edwards' latest campaign pitch, unedited and unfiltered, for the first time. And I thought it was very persuasive.

One common rap on Edwards is that he's an angry populist--and angry populism, we're constantly reminded, doesn't sell politically. But what impressed me about Edwards was his ability to weave a populist pitch, focusing on the plight of people struggling economically, to a message of hope and idealism. For all of his bashing of corporate America and dwelling on problems like unaffordable health care--and, yes, there was plenty of both--Edwards placed these complaints in the larger context of common aspirations. "My parents and grandparents sacrificed, to give their children a better life--just like your parents did," Edwards said in a typical flourish. "We need to restore that."

Later, as I listened to Edwards run through his litany of policy proposals and watched the audience react, something else struck me. I've heard Edwards talk about his health care plan so many times I barely listen anymore; I'm sure the reporters who cover his talks could recite, by memory, the story of the uninsured man with the cleft palate. But it's easy to forget that most people don't follow the ins and outs of policy that closely. And it's easy to forget that when you hear these things for the first time, they are pretty powerful.

That's not to say I liked everything I heard from Edwards. If I have a complaint about his substantive message these days, it's that it's become too focused on the people left behind--and not enough on those who might fall behind but haven't yet. Edwards is an incredibly compelling spokesperson for the downtrodden, and I'm grateful for that.

But I wonder if he dwells on them too much, losing the attention of the middle class. And that's important--because if you want to create universal health care, the challenge doesn't lie in winning over the 47 million people who've already lost their coverage. It lies in winning over the other 250 million who have insurance but could lose it any day--or who might discover, upon becoming ill, that their insurance doesn't meet their needs.

I've seen Edwards in enough other contexts--debates, convention speeches, and such--to think he's perfectly capable of hitting both themes simultaneously, of appealing to both the poor and middle class at the same time. I just didn't see it Wednesday night.

--Jonathan Cohn