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John Edwards Will Kick Your Ass

Knoxville, Iowa

It's been two weeks since I last attended an Edwards event, and I immediately noticed something new: For some reason he was wearing a smart-looking suit and tie last night rather than his usual blazer and blue jeans combo. Maybe just another sign we're getting down to business here...

More substantively, to pick up on something Mike mentioned, he spent a lot of time taking thinly-veiled swipes at Obama, not much time taking similar swipes at Hillary. (Don't get me wrong, he spent a lot of time talking about the corrupting influence of lobbyists, which seems broadly directed at Hillary. But I didn't notice any specific jabs.) There was this riff, for example: "[T]he other thing I sometimes hear from candidates--I hear, 'Well this is what we need to do. We need to sit at a table, get the stakeholders'--that's the term they use--'stakeholders--insurance companies, the drug companies, the oil companies--give 'em a seat at the table, negotiate with them, and they will voluntarily give their power up...' That is a complete fantasy. It will never happen." That sounded to me like a shot at Obama's idea of having everyone with an interest in healthcare reform sit around a table to discuss it while the C-SPAN cameras roll.

Later on, Edwards told a pretty powerful story about a woman who was recently denied coverage for a liver transplant. The doctors and nurses at her hospital complained to the insurance company, and then ordinary "Americans" said enough and started picketing the insurer themselves. Finally, the company backed down and agreed to cover the transplant. But it was too late; the woman died a few hours later. "People say to me, 'As president of the United States, I want you to sit at a table and negotiate with these people?'" Edwards groaned. "Never. I will never do it." Again, it seemed like a shot at Obama.

An aide assures me that Edwards is still pressing the case against Hillary as hard as ever--that she's basically the target of all the corporate lobbyist talk, and the emphasis on the need to change Washington. Fair enough. But the allusions to Obama's idea are unquestionably new. (For what it's worth, the feelings seem to be mutual. Obama spent a lot of time deriding Edwards's overly-angry approach in the speech I caught Friday.)

One final wrinkle from last night: Edwards's rhetoric about being a fighter has suddenly become very literal. He's always talked about fighting corporate interests in Washington and in the court room as a trial lawyer. Last night there was this: "I grew up in some rough neighborhoods ... I remember when I was young, I got into a fight ... went home. My father said, 'Listen to me.' He said, 'I don't want to hear about you starting any fights.' I said, 'Yes, sir.' And he said, 'Listen to me very carefully. You don't start a fight, but you never, ever walk away from one.' ... And so I fought. I fought with everything I had. Didn't win all the time, but I won some. And I survived."

If you follow Edwards long enough, you notice that, in subtle ways, he has the bearing and even the swagger of a jock (which he actually was--and a pretty successful one at that). I think this is the closest to the surface I've ever seen it, though. It's like Edwards is saying to lobbyists: Don't mess with me, because I will kick your ass. Really.  

--Noam Scheiber