Edwards gives rousing speech in St. Paul before dropping out

By Amy Ledig

From the atmosphere at John Edwards’ appearance Tuesday night at the Carpenters’ Union Hall in St. Paul, it was unthinkable that he would drop out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination the next day.

Around 700 people packed into the hall to hear Edwards’ populist message. St. Paul was the last stop in a busy day that included visits to Missouri and Oklahoma.

Tom Kieselbach of St. Paul said before Edwards came on stage that he liked him because “I like his populist approach.”

The crowd was energized, waving around “Carpenters for Edwards” signs as they listened to a soundtrack that ranged from country to Motown favorites. As the evening progressed to well past the 6:45 start time, they began to chant, “We want John.”

The evening’s speakers and speeches were laden with importance for Minnesotans. Sue Perpich, daughter of late Gov. Rudy Perpich, was one of the speakers. She attempted to overcome Edwards’ perceived weakness of being neither a minority nor a woman, saying, “President Edwards will come to victory as a minority because he’s the minority who stands up for those in need.”

Most of the warm-up speakers mentioned the national media’s belief that there was no passion for Edwards, drawing huge cheers as the crowd worked to prove them wrong.

“John Edwards does very well in caucuses as we saw in Iowa. You may not know that because the media likes to fixate on a two person race,” said Minnesota State House Majority Leader Tony Sertich in his introduction for the candidate, eliciting boos from the crowd.

Edwards’ speech was confident and passionate, giving no hint that the man on stage was about 12 hours away from withdrawing. Like his opponents Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Edwards stressed the importance of overhauling the health care system.

“There’s only one answer, universal health care, mandated coverage for everybody,” he said. “I’ve got a way to pay for this health care – get rid of George Bush’s tax cuts.”

“How about a president of the United States who asks Americans to be patriotic about something besides war?” Edwards asked, segueing into the environmental section of the speech. He said that like President John Kennedy, he would ask Americans to sacrifice for their country by living in a more sustainable, environmentally friendly manner.

It was Edwards’ populist message, though, that drew the loudest applause from the crowd heavily peppered with union members. He criticized free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA, saying “When I’m president of the United States and they put a trade proposal on my desk, I’ll have one question – tell me how this is good for working class Americans.”

He pledged to end U.S. involvement in Iraq, bringing home combat troops and ruling out any permanent bases in the country, within his first year in office. He also promised to provide better health care and support for veterans.

The part of the speech that elicited the most applause, though, was when he contrasted the record salaries executives raked in last year with the stories of people he had met on the campaign trail, such as the volunteers at a homeless shelter that had to turn away mothers with children because of space constraints.

When he mentioned his wife Elizabeth, who has been battling breast cancer, the room went silent.

“You cannot get chemo in an ER,” he said, shoring up his case for providing health care to all, including women who have breast cancer but cannot afford health insurance. “Where are these women supposed to go?”

He ended the speech saying that if the crowd pledged to do all they could to support him in the caucus on Tuesday, “I pledge to fight for you with every fiber of my being to bring back the real Democratic party and bring back the White House.”

His message seemed to resonate. Ottavio Savina, a retired union worker, said after the speech that he liked Edwards “because he represents real change, not just fancy talking.”

“If someone doesn’t take on corporate America, we’re in trouble” Dean Andrews said. “[Edwards] is the only one who seems to be telling the truth.”

“I love his policy on Iraq, on bringing back our Constitution and values, and universal health care is so important to our country,” said Sue Rogers, who volunteers for the campaign. “The biggest issue is that he’s not taking money from the big corporations, so he doesn’t owe them anything.”

However, it seems that the fervor Edwards’ populist message stirs up in his followers just wasn’t enough to keep his campaign competitive in a race with Obama and Clinton, who Edwards frequently refers to as celebrity candidates. He announced his withdrawal in a speech in New Orleans on Wednesday afternoon.

“I have nothing bad to say about Hillary or Obama, but.” trailed off Kieselbach.

It looks like he will have to start looking more closely.