John Edwards lets his hair down in San Francisco

He turns on a midday nightclub crowd with a funny, fiery populism that feels more genuine than it did in 2004.

Published August 2, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

I haven't seen John Edwards speak in person since the 2004 presidential campaign, so I walked a few blocks to watch him at a packed lunchtime rally at groovy Temple Nightclub south of Market Street here in San Francisco. Organizers say 800 people paid $15 to attend the Small Bucks for Big Change rally, which advertised a decadent midday no-host bar, though the crowd was mainly drinking bottled water, with Heineken a close second, the bartender said. Water was crucial; it was steamy in there.

I was impressed by the size of the crowd, its relative youth (though it was pretty white) and its intensity. I watched Howard Dean pack a San Francisco hotel ballroom around this time in 2003; this wasn't that. But Edwards wasn't just on the covers of Time and Newsweek as Dean was back then. This was a filled-to-capacity room at an offbeat time relatively early in the campaign, and Edwards had the crowd roaring. Most interesting to me: He seems much more at home in his skin the second time around.

Organizers warmed up the room with Edwards' infamous and hilarious "Hair" ad, produced for the YouTube debate, which according to the New York Times was a Joe Trippi idea that was opposed by pollster Harrison Hickman. I'm glad Trippi won; it's great (somehow I missed the surreal shot of Alberto Gonzales' hair the first time I saw it). Edwards came out swinging against the Bush administration's proposed $20 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, calling it a bad idea to start "an arms race in one of the most volatile regions." He moved into his populist pitch, insisting "the system is rigged" against average Americans and reframing his trademark "Two Americas" vision as not just "the rich and the poor" but "the big multinational corporations and the very rich." He promised he'd close the prison at Guantánamo, pledged "no more secret prisons, no more torture, no more spying," and added: "Can you believe a candidate for president has to say these things?" to loud cheers. And he took on his much-maligned trial lawyer background directly and embraced it as a positive. Talking about the power of big oil and insurance companies, he noted: "I've been fighting these people my whole life, and beating them my whole life."

That's what turned on the folks around me, including two lawyers for the State Department of Insurance who came over on their lunch hour to see Edwards. "He's the greatest," said Cindy Ossias, a lawyer who blew the whistle on former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush's misdeeds in 2000. Her friend Larissa Kosits agreed, though she noted that she's still looking at Barack Obama. But both women thought Edwards' trial-lawyer background was a plus, not a minus, because he's a "fighter" who, Ossias said, "represented people who wouldn't have their day in court without him." Nearby, longtime Democratic activist Larry Magee (who worked for Jerry Brown in 1980) agreed. "He's an outsider. I like that. I don't always agree with him, but he has a plan, he's a fighter."

Before today I felt like the edgy, go-for-broke quality the Edwards campaign had acquired was the work of Elizabeth Edwards and a byproduct of her incurable cancer. That's part of it, but Edwards himself seems to be warming to the insurgent role. Sure, you can say it's his last, best prayer -- insert various discouraging poll numbers here, including today's Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing Sen. Hillary Clinton widening her lead over Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama. But as Walter Shapiro notes, a recent CNN poll showed that only 10 percent of New Hampshire Democrats have decided who to vote for; 64 percent have not (an additional 26 percent are listed as "leaning toward someone"). Edwards is still leading in Iowa, and there's plenty of time for the front-runners elsewhere to stumble. As Edwards himself told reporters, without mentioning Dean, in 2004 "the front-runner didn't get the nomination."

In the (very short) press availability, Edwards passed up opportunities to distance himself from Obama over Obama's Wednesday speech arguing that the U.S. should go after Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida leadership, into Pakistan if needed. While noting he hadn't yet read the speech, "we have a responsibility to go after al-Qaida wherever they are," he told reporters, who seemed to be looking for an Edwards-Obama flap to follow up the Clinton-Obama dust-up on diplomacy. (Although earlier, in an interview with KCBS, he apparently dismissed Obama's suggestion that the U.S. send troops into Pakistan to stabilize it and stop the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.)

I didn't get close enough to Edwards to ask if he'd be a better candidate for African-Americans than Obama (or as Matt Drudge might paraphrase it, whether he's blacker than Obama). Kidding. They did play "Soul Man" to warm up the crowd. (Not kidding.) But I like that Edwards is aggressively making poverty and civil rights key issues, and so did the crowd. Yes, this is San Francisco, dismiss it if you like, but even for San Francisco, this was a good, rowdy turnout at an odd time of day. Hillary Clinton is more than 20 points ahead of her nearest Democratic rival here, but the Edwards campaign hasn't conceded it to her. "I'll be here, I'll campaign here," Edwards promised reporters. "We have a long way to go."

By Joan Walsh

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