THE NOTE: Short on Funds, Can Edwards Compete?


Where's Ann Coulter when John Edwards needs her?

Just three days before the end of third-quarter fund-raising -- and in wake of the SEIU's decision to hold off on endorsing a candidate: He's accepting public financing for the primaries, which means (more than any of the spin) that his campaign is admitting that it can't compete financially with the big girl and the big boy in the race.

This will mean a boost of cash -- probably $10 million in January -- but it also means Edwards, D-N.C., can only spend about $1.5 million on ads in Iowa and $800,000 in New Hampshire (and he's already about a third of the way there in both states). His campaign is already identifying loopholes that will allow him to spend more, but (beside the moral incongruity of talking clean and playing dirty like that) here's all you need to know: If this was such a good idea -- politically and financially -- everyone would be doing it.

VIDEO: President Bush misspeaks while endorsing No Child Left Behind.

Edwards is quickly making this part of his populist narrative, a challenge to the other Democrats (and one that will be quickly ignored by those who have the financial means to ignore it). "Washington is awash with money, and the system is corrupt," Edwards said.

Yet if this is a choice, why didn't he make it when he started the race, or at any point before the very end of an important fund-raising period? Has money gotten dirtier? Or it just that he's not finding enough of it?

Let's ask Joe Trippi -- no, not today's Joe Trippi, Joe Trippi 2003 (whose candidate, Howard Dean, was rolling in the cash). The "campaign believes that any Democratic campaign that opted into the matching-funds system has given up on the general election," Trippi said four years ago. Yesterday, he told The Washington Post's Anne Kornblut and Matthew Mosk: "It's a different time. A different year." Indeed. The move raises the stakes for Edwards, and the announcement's timing -- right after a strong debate performance -- reflects the seesaw nature of his campaign: He remains a leader in the "ideas primary," with a strong rationale for his candidacy, yet every time he starts to gets some traction, something causes him to slip.

The decision on public financing is "a political blow, but it's probably also the only lifeline he has to stay in the race," Politico's Jeanne Cummings reports. It also means that if he wins the nomination, he may have to go dark for six months or more -- until the general election begins, with the Democratic convention. The Democratic base has got to be jazzed by the prospect of Mitt or Rudy dumping millions on his (well-coiffed) head.)

Cummings' colleague, Ben Smith, lands Edwards' campaign talking points -- and he's made his move "proudly." And this: "Today, Edwards is challenging Sen. Clinton to prove that she means what she says. If she doesn't agree, she should have to look the American people in the eye explain why their money isn't good enough."

But remember that Edwards is truly the candidate who must win Iowa; now he'll have to win it with at least some limitations on his ability to advertise there. (Michelle Obama, it turns out, didn't quite pronounce the state make-or-break for her husband; the Quad City Times corrected the quote where she was purported to have said that without a victory in Iowa, "it's over.")

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