WASHINGTON — Democrat John Edwards tried to cut a secret deal with both Barack Obama and perhaps Hillary Clinton during last year's presidential primaries, offering his endorsement in exchange for the vice presidential nomination, according to a new book by Obama's campaign manager.
Edwards' camp made the offer shortly before the South Carolina primary, when Obama and Clinton had split early contests and Edwards apparently believed he had “maximum leverage” to help deliver Southern white votes to whoever would give him the number two spot on the ticket, according to David Plouffe in his book, "The Audacity to Win."
Plouffe said that Obama ruled out any deals. Obama went on to win the South Carolina primary anyway, and got Edwards' endorsement in May 2008.
The campaign manager did not mention in his book that the National Enquirer already had reported that Edwards had had an affair with former campaign aide Reille Hunter and that she had given birth to his child. Edwards later admitted the affair, but denied that he'd fathered the baby.
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Whether the Obama campaign knew about the affair, they wanted Edwards support heading into South Carolina. Obama had won the Iowa caucuses, but Clinton had bounced back to win the New Hampshire primary.
Though Edwards hopes were fading fast to win the nomination himself, he hoped to parlay support in South Carolina into a shot at the vice presidency _ four years after he’d been John Kerry’s 2004 general election running mate.
“Publicly his team insisted they could resuscitate his campaign in South Carolina. But privately, it soon became clear they knew otherwise, and some time after the debate, I got a call from a senior Edwards adviser,” Plouffe wrote in his book.
“This was the pitch: ‘Listen. It's clear unless the race is shaken up, Hillary is going to win. You guys might not even win South Carolina. What would shake the race up is John ending his campaign, but not simply to endorse another candidate. All things being equal, John prefers Barack. They should announce they are joining forces and will run as a ticket. Edwards can vouch for Obama with blue-collar and Southern whites and is running on a change message.’”
The Edwards adviser told Plouffe that Obama and Edwards would be a “perfect fit” and that the pre-nomination announcement of a ticket would knock Clinton off stride, if not out of the race.
“It has to be something that big to slow down Hillary. You need a big shakeup in the race and this could be it,” the Edwards adviser told Plouffe, according to Plouffe’s account.
“I listened intently,” Plouffe said, “and replied that obviously this was something I would need to discuss with my boss. `Am I authorized to raise this offer with him?’ I asked.
“`Yes,’ came the reply. But then right at the end of the conversation, the Edwards rep added a new wrinkle: `Just to be clear, we're going to talk to the Clinton people too. That's not where John's heart is, but he is at a point of maximum leverage now. We want to see what each of you is thinking.’
“My initial reaction was that this was a nonstarter. Of course we wanted Edwards's support and his message was certainly closer in spirit to ours than it was to Hillary's. But political deals like this rarely work: people see right through them.
“Plus I couldn't imagine Obama agreeing this far out to lock in his running mate without going through any process or even being certain that we would be the ones making a selection.
“Obama's answer was quick and firm: he would cut no deals. If he won, he did not want to be locked in to any personnel matters, and he had little interest in deciding on a vice presidential pick in the heat of the primary campaign.
Obama spoke directly with Edwards, Plouffe said, and reiterated that there would be no promises or deals in exchange for an endorsement, Plouffe said.
“Clearly there could be a potential role for him down the line. But if he endorsed us now, there could be no hint of something concrete in the future.”
When Plouffe spoke later with the Edwards adviser, it was “clear” that Edwards had briefed him on the Obama talk. Plouffe said the Edwards camp pressed again that they were still talking to Clinton’s campaign as well.
“The contact said that while John's inclination was to be with Obama, it seemed the Clinton folks were more intent on gaining his support,” Plouffe said.
“He did not allude to specifics, but the message was that Hillary might offer specific commitments,” Plouffe said.
“I strongly doubted that Clinton was offering Edwards anything concrete, and certainly not the VP slot. She knew better than most how important decisions like this were, and I had a hard time believing that even a crucial endorsement on on this level, days before South Carolina, would warrant much more than a thank-you and a promise to talk further down the line.”
Plouffe added that he does not know if Edwards personally sanctioned the talk of a backroom deal for the vice presidency.
Edwards could not be reached for comment.