RALEIGH -- Does John Edwards really have a chance to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States?
It's not a likely outcome, I'll grant, but it isn't completely out of the realm of possibility. After all, stranger things have happened. For example, on one occasion Billy Crystal played such good, tight defense that William Shatner was unable to get open for the pass in the end zone, leading Gabe Kaplan to sack William DeVane and win the game.
I refer, of course, to the climactic end of the football competition of "Battle of the Network Stars 1978," which aired Tuesday night on the cable channel Trio. Crystal, then starring on ABC's sitcom "Soap," proved to be a versatile athlete during the run of the venerable, hokey, and actually quite entertaining "Battle of the Network Stars." I saw him dunk Jamie Farr with two fastballs. I saw him far outdistance David Letterman on the obstacle course. And in his football debut, the tiny but tenacious Crystal proved to be more than a match for Shatner, who had by the 1970s graduated from the role of Captain Kirk but had not yet reached the powerful, dramatic heights of T.J. Hooker.
OK, enough silliness. I had a point here when I started out this column, but I seem to have dropped it. While I fumble around for it, here's more information on Trio's revival of the original "reality television" of the 1970s.
Oh, yes. Here it is. My point is that you never quite know how a contest is going to turn out until the game is played. In the case of the Democratic presidential primaries, there are way too many uncertainties to make a confident prediction. Here are just two of the many ways I can see the race unfolding over the next few months:
1. The Kerry Coronation. After a promising start as a sort-of frontrunner, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry has had a rough couple of months. His wife Theresa Heinz started to make headlines on her own. She's really weird, so that's really bad. Plus, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean came up quick to challenge Kerry New Hampshire, saw his sail billow out to catch the prevailing McGovernite winds from many Democratic activists in the aftermath of Gulf War II, and suddenly seemed to be a surprising leader in the media regatta of the summer.
But Kerry can recover. First, he's attempted to straddle the war issue. He voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force, but now essentially says he was misled and that the war was a mistake. This cuteness will probably get him into big political trouble if he is the nominee -- particularly if Saddam Hussein follows his sons to Hades and Iraqi scientists start explaining how they dismantled, stashed, or smuggled out the biochems -- but the Kerry straddle could blunt Dean among doves while retaining a little bit of his military-man credentials as a Vietnam vet.
Second, Kerry has some strong people advising him. They'll run a professional media campaign in the key early states. Dean has the look of a sprinter but not a marathon runner. If the Iraq issue fades, he's toast. Even if it doesn't fade, he'll get tiresome.
OK, more tiresome.
If Kerry recaptures the momentum to win convincingly in New Hampshire after coming in second or third in Iowa, and then racks up a few other early primaries, he'll own a good segment of the Democratic electorate. The campaigns of Bob Graham, Joe Lieberman, and Dick Gephardt are struggling right now, and neither Graham nor Lieberman is likely to recover unless there is a turn back to the center among Democratic donors and activists. Don't bet on it. Gephardt, for his part, seems over-the-hill and his union base isn't enough to win Democratic races anymore.
But there's another scenario.
2. The Edwards Upset. As I've stated before, it seems to me most likely that John Edwards ends up on the presidential ticket as Kerry's VP. But what if Howard Dean doesn't fade? What if the Iraq conflict remains a muddled one with a mixed outcome, Dean offers the prospect of a consistent and principled opponent to the war, and Kerry's straddling ends up alienating mad-as-hell Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire, and other early-primary states? Plus, what if Theresa Heinz goes on "60 Minutes" or, perhaps more appropriately, "Access Hollywood" and starts spouting off all sorts of asinine things?
Assuming I'm right about Lieberman's bad fit for the current party and Gephardt's organizational deficiencies, John Edwards would become (brace yourselves, Republican hacks) the only rational and sensible choice for the Democratic nomination. After all, unless it turns out that Bush actually made up the existence of Saddam Hussein's weapons, his mass-murder victims, his terrorist ties, or even Saddam Hussein himself (like the WMD, he has yet to be found), there isn't going to be much of an angle to attract swing voters to a McGovernite ticket. Edwards, as a war supporter who has nonetheless criticized Bush's leadership, could gain. Plus, as the senator illustrated in remarks Tuesday at the opening of his election headquarters in South Carolina, Edwards can tell a compelling story about his life. If the economic recovery remains anemic, he might be well a better candidate than the elitist Kerry to sell a populist, anti-Bush message on domestic issues -- or at least many Democratic movers and shakers may so conclude in the key states. Apparently, as a new piece from The Hill points out, a plurality of big Democratic donors in these states already have concluded thusly.
As I have said, stranger things have happened. You should have seen Fred "Rerun" Berry paddling a kayak against Jimmie "J.J." Walker in the 1977 episode. Compared to that, what's happening in the Edwards campaign is nothing short of dynamite.
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.