Former Sen. John Edwards got a timely boost for his struggling presidential campaign: the endorsement of two big, blue-collar unions at a Labor Day rally in downtown Pittsburgh this morning.
The North Carolina Democrat, who has lagged far behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., in national polls — but who leads in the crucial early caucus state of Iowa — got the support of both the United Steelworkers and the United Mine Workers of America.
"America wasn't built by Wall Street," said Edwards, who increasingly has made a sharp-edged populism his campaign theme. "America was built by steelworkers, mine workers, men and women who worked with their backs and hands and hearts."
The 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate has assiduously courted support from labor unions in this campaign, appearing at more than 200 picket lines and union organizational events over the last few years. And he fought hard for today's endorsements, beating back an 11th-hour effort by Clinton.
Clinton had tried hard to block the steelworkers' move, personally contacting union president Leo Gerard, according to a source close to the union's deliberations.
One key selling point Edwards is making to unions — and increasingly to the crowds that come to hear him speak in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early nominating states — is that he stands a better chance of winning a general election than either Clinton or Obama. And in fact, polls show Edwards does better than either of his main rivals in head-to-head matchups with leading Republicans.
The implicit argument Edwards is making is subtle, but unmistakable: As a white, Southern man, he is better positioned to win across the country than a woman from New York or a black man from Chicago.
"John Edwards is a candidate who can campaign and win in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky — places where Democrats can and should compete," Edwards said of himself in his speech in Pittsburgh. "I will campaign everywhere in America."
But Edwards has failed to gain much traction in national polls, as media attention and money have flowed to his two higher-wattage rivals. His stagnation in national polls has frustrated him and his staff, and led to a decision to start making sharp, direct attacks on Clinton in particular.
"The American people deserve to know that their presidency is not for sale," he said last week in New Hampshire. "The Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent and lobbyist money can no longer influence policy in the House and Senate."
The attacks, which Edwards disingenuously claims are not aimed at any candidate, seem to have gotten Clinton's attention. Sunday, she declared, "I want to work within the system. … You can't pretend the system doesn't exist."
Edwards flew from Pittsburgh to Des Moines, Iowa, where he is marching in the city's Labor Day parade and holding a rally before flying on to Nevada, another crucial early nominating state where union muscle could count a great deal.
He says he's not worried about trailing so far behind in the national polls, telling ABC News "things are starting to move" for him.