Can Edwards Stay Upbeat Till Tuesday?

After Sen. John Edwards surged to a strong second-place finish in Wisconsin, keeping his bid for the presidency alive, the question is whether he can continue the positive message in his advertising as he heads toward Super Tuesday.

To blunt Sen. John Kerry’s lead—Edwards has gained 188 delegates, to Kerry’s 497—experts said Edwards will have to win in states such as New York and Ohio on March 2. Sources said the campaign will rely heavily on free media and continue with what national spokesman Roger Salazar called a “positive, uplifting vision.”

Yet viewers can expect Edwards’ ads to become more aggressive on issues such as labor, his campaign said. An ad that broke Feb. 15 in Wisconsin deals with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Kerry voted for in 1993. Edwards has said he would have opposed NAFTA, had he been in the Senate at the time, because it fails to provide enough protections for American workers.

“As we get into a two-man race, it is going to be imperative that we talk about our substantive differences,” Salazar said. But he emphasized that does not mean going negative.

Salazar said Edwards likely will not buy media in the large cities in Ohio, New York and California. The Golden State alone costs $2 million a week to effectively reach voters, he said; Edwards spent just $2.1 million in all of 2003, per Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

Kim Rubey, an Edwards press secretary, said the campaign is banking on Kerry not being able to afford New York or Los Angeles either. She added that the news coverage following Edwards’ single-digit loss to Kerry in Wisconsin helped pull in $700,000 in donations by the end of the next day—more than double what Edwards spent in Wisconsin.

His ads are scoring high marks. “He’s taken a page out of [Mario] Cuomo’s book,” said Mark DiMassimo of DiMassimo Brand Advertising in New York, who worked on Bill Bradley’s 2000 campaign. “Cuomo redefined the language. He said to stop talking about the ‘deficit’; talk about ‘debt.’ Edwards doesn’t talk about ‘the economy’ but about ‘jobs.’ ”

DiMassimo said the town-hall- format ads “show how compelling [Edwards] can be at connecting with real voters. The ads separate him from the others. They say he must be comfortable there, a man of the people. If anything, he seems almost too comfortable, a little unruffled.”

DiMassimo said staying positive has its advantages. “If Kerry doesn’t implode, he has a good chance for vp, so why go after him now?” he said.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said Edwards does not have the war chest to advertise his way to a giant Super Tuesday. “The press got excited last [Tuesday], because they have a race again,” he said. “But can he sustain it until March 2? That remains to be seen.”