Edwards' strategy steals media spotlight from Kerry


Sen. John Edwards beat Sen. John Kerry in a contest last night where the North Carolinian displayed the kind of political cunning that may prove handy should he face President Bush.

I'm talking here, naturally, about the race that took place on the air rather than in the voting booths - the effort to use the media to define the meaning of last night's crazy-quilt of Democratic primaries and caucuses.

Edwards, who was apparently born in a hospital wing lit by the glow of cathode ray tubes, spoke to supporters about his win in South Carolina at 8 p.m. EST last night, one hour after the close of polls there.

There had been the hint of a Kerry Coronation in the day's early commentary. Analyses on CBS Evening News and PBS's NewsHour yesterday evening seemed to dismiss any possible challenges to the Massachusetts senator merely as temporary blips.

But Edwards timed his entrance perfectly last night to make the local and network evening newscasts in the West.

And, not by coincidence, the honey-tongued orator drowned out the announcement of Kerry's dominant win in delegate-rich Missouri, relegating the development for many minutes to the crawl at the bottom of the cable channels' screens.

Not by accident, Edwards got largely favorable coverage all night for his single clear-cut win.

"This will win the battle of [newspapers'] first editions and for the network news on the West Coast," an impressed Chris Matthews of MSNBC observed. Said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer: "John Edwards did what he had to do."

Over on Fox News, however, analysts intentionally struck a slightly more cautious tone about Edwards' prospects.

"You can't get too far away from the big story," Fox News' executive producers for political programs, Marty Ryan, said in an interview last night. "Kerry had a great night. ... You don't want to miss the lead just because you're infatuated with the idea that somebody else has won one or two more primaries."

Meanwhile, the Rev. Al Sharpton, a candidate who was running to run, rather than running to win, fell short in South Carolina. Had the controversial New York activist made a stronger showing in the state, he could have demanded to make a prominent speech at the Democratic National Convention. That would be major-league television exposure.

"He may not get a voice - if any [role] at all, in the Democratic convention," Fred Barnes, executive editor of the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News. "Al Sharpton is no Jesse Jackson."

Which is a shame for political reporters who rely on Sharpton's supply of snappy one-liners.

Here's what he told South Carolina voters concerned about job erosion: "I got here as an African because of bad trade policy." Is the man seeking a political post or a cable news show?

MSNBC's Matthews has infused traces of charm and respect into his typical dodge ball approach to interviews. ("Hey, senator!" Wham!) But he has some unusual company.

The newest "MSNBC election analyst," Joe Trippi, was campaign manager for Democratic candidate Howard Dean until the middle of last week. Let me repeat that: UNTIL LAST WEEK. I guess his revolving door was constructed from cardboard.

Trippi seemed uncertain whether to blast the candidate who recently forced him out or to defend the new Dean strategy, which he had opposed.

Live television is inherently messy; Edwards' South Carolina valedictory, for example, had poor sound quality at the outset. Yet the cable news coverage allowed viewers to see the analysis unfold in real time. The Oklahoma primary narrowed to Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark as the night progressed.

So Kerry would not be crowned just yet. Between 10:15 and 10:45 p.m., however, a confident Kerry appeared on all three major cable news channels to talk about his multiple primary and caucus wins.

Suddenly, commentators were picking up the thread of the possible Democratic dream ticket of Kerry and Edwards - an idea they had set aside after Edwards' Palmetto State speech.

Questions? Comments? Story ideas? David Folkenflik can be reached by e-mail at david.folkenflik@baltsun.com or by phone at 410-332-6923.

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