In October, one Democratic operative tracking the race described Edwards as merely a “placeholder candidate” who would be convenient to have around in case Vitter collapsed. Edwards’s core supporters contend he’s been much more than that.
“We had internal polling two years ago that showed exactly what we see right now head-to-head with David Vitter. And it was a matter of overcoming every obstacle between there and here, and some of that was about making people believe it, and some of it was just like, the only way to make people believe it was to just go and do it,” said Mary-Patricia Wray, Edwards’s chief consultant.
Wray was the very first person to join the campaign, and was Edwards’s only official staff member up until this summer. Otherwise, Edwards’s wife, Donna, performed all the administrative duties of his campaign and his six siblings did the legwork—regularly hauling a float with a giant bell on it to parades and festivals across the state to gin up support.
But despite the low-budget operation, Edwards had long planned to use his military background to brand himself as a moderate Democrat who had the standing to go after Vitter’s past scandal. Starkel, Edwards’s college roommate, said a group of West Point classmates gathered at Edwards’s house in Amite at the start of the year to strategize how to make sure people knew about his personal story—and persuade veterans to support his campaign.
Edwards effectively weaved in his military background to counteract Vitter’s attacks casting him as weak on public safety. And when his campaign went on television attacking Vitter over the prostitution scandal, Edwards cited the West Point honor code to draw a sharp contrast with the senator. He also deliberately avoided publicly embracing Mayor Landrieu, the highest-profile Democrat in the state, intent on cultivating an independent, moderate image.
The Landrieus, Wray said, "didn’t want to add to this false narrative that John Bel is some kind of national, liberal candidate. They were cautious not to poison the well, or give anybody the opportunity to use them as evidence that John Bel is somebody that he’s not.”
To be sure, Edwards also benefited from good luck. The free-for-all nature of the primary, in which candidates from all parties compete, allowed Edwards to escape scrutiny as Vitter’s GOP opponents aggressively attacked him. Both Angelle and Dardenne hit the senator over the prostitution scandal, making it easier for Edwards to continue the attacks once he secured a spot in the runoff.
But most Democrats didn’t view Edwards as the favorite until the primary, in which Vitter won just 23 percent of the vote, and subsequent polls showing him with a substantial lead in the runoff. Carville said he hadn’t closely followed developments until recently, but was motivated to pitch in for Edwards after hearing all the buzz. Like most Democrats all along, Carville still views the race with a degree of skepticism.
“We’re going to see what the Democrats—in almost perfect laboratory conditions—what they can do,” Carville said.