Surprise choice for president 

I won’t be able to attend the Feb. 7 Democratic caucuses, and so I sent away for a ballot, which last week actually arrived in the mail. I could have voted on the Internet, but I wanted the quaint experience of checking the little box for the candidate of my choice, much as Abraham Lincoln did once upon a time.

Then came the sticky part, deciding whom to vote for. I had gone back and forth over the last several months, but when the time came, I found it was fairly easy.

I voted for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. This may amaze anyone who remembers a column I wrote seven months ago (Metro Times, June 18, “Empty words won’t beat Bush”) after I had been at a dinner party with Edwards, when I complained that he seemed to lack vision.

“I expected at some point to see the passion or outrage that you would expect of someone crazy enough” to run for president, I grumbled.

Well, after watching him — and all the other candidates — over the last few months, I think that he has grown — and is capable of more growth still.

I like that he has mostly refrained from the sort of nasty attack politics most of his rivals are using on one another, and on Bush the lesser. I liked that when the candidates “debated” in Detroit, he was the only one to emphasize education.

He’s done that throughout the campaign, pledging to guarantee a year of college to anyone who wants to work for it. He knows how important that is. Yes, he is a multimillionaire trial lawyer, but he is a mill worker’s son who was the first of his family to go to college. He’s suffered personal tragedy — the death of his first son in a car accident — and he and his wife then had two more children in their late 40s.

He seems to be something of a real person. And I like something else about him too. I think that he has possibly the only chance to win. For there is one diamond-hard fact this election year, and it is that exactly a year from last Tuesday, George W. Bush will put his hand on a borrowed Bible, smirk at his handlers and start his second term.

That is, unless the Democrats find some way of beating him. How essential that is can hardly be exaggerated. Think of what the Bushies have done to this country in the last three years, to our economy, to civil liberties, to the environment and to our standing in the world, largely in the name of fighting terrorism.

We have gone from record prosperity to record deficits and we have signed on to occupy Iraq for untold years at a cost of untold billions of dollars and the lives of our soldiers, who are, almost daily, being blown up or shot in the back.

That’s what this crowd has done, knowing full well that most of the voters didn’t want them last time, and knowing they would have to be re-elected this year.

Think of Bush in power for a second term, especially if he has won a real majority, and never has to face another election. Imagine what that might be like.

And the truth is that it will be very hard for any Democrat to win, unless he seizes the hearts, trust and imagination of the American people. Most Americans pay only the barest attention to the news, in part because they are so busy and in part because the media offers them too often a confusing array of semi-garbage.

Two-thirds of us, for example, still think Saddam Hussein had something to do with Sept. 11, though it wasn’t so. Americans want to believe that the president and their government are basically right. They have to be given a compelling reason to change.

Democrats also suffer from the tyranny of the electoral map. Remember the disputed 2000 election? The country was a sea of Republican red with large patches of Democratic blue. The states that voted for Al Gore filled the Northeast from Maine to Pennsylvania, except for the tiny red chip of New Hampshire.

Democrats also took the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Michigan and a cluster of states around Chicago, many by small margins. Yet Gore, who had not kept in touch with his native Tennessee, didn’t win a single state anywhere in the South.

Presidential politics is a board game; you need enough pieces to get to 270. When you don’t win any Southern states (the Old Confederacy plus Kentucky), you start out behind, 161-0. Remember Michael Dukakis? Does anyone really believe that Vermont’s Howard Dean or John Kerry of Massachusetts can win Southern states this November?

Technically, U.S. Rep. Dick Gephardt ought to be a formidable candidate. If he could hold the Gore states and add his own Missouri, that would be enough. Yet, though he has been around for a long time, he has never excited the public’s imagination.

Most of his supporters are older; he seems to speak to an older blue-collar, labor constituency. Wesley Clark, the general, is an intriguing character, but doesn’t have a shred of experience in partisan politics or elected government.

Which is important. The last two Democratic presidents have been governors of small Southern states without any previous Washington experience. As a result, they both squandered time and opportunity. Edwards, like John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, has at least represented a biggish diverse state in the U.S. Senate.

That doesn’t mean he won’t screw up. However, I think he has the best shot out there. Yes, I wish we had the luxury of some of Dennis Kucinich’s ideals or that we had a president who could talk like Al Sharpton. But this is the real world.

Do you want another four years of the present management messing it up?

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail

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