Call him the new Comeback Kid.
Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards on Sunday came back to Lawrence to make up for a campaign mix-up. In back-to-back speeches, he told thousands of supporters that John Kerry's election would unite a divided country.
"This is the most important election of our lifetime," Edwards said as he took the microphone at Abe & Jake's Landing, 8 E. Sixth St.
He later climbed atop portable, wooden steps to speak to an overflow throng outside City Hall and the Riverfront Plaza that couldn't get into Abe & Jake's because it was too crowded.
Edwards, his wife, Elizabeth, and their three children came back to Lawrence in part to apologize for a campaign error made early Saturday when the Kerry-Edwards campaign train rumbled past the city's Amtrak station. More than 1,000 people had waited hours hoping for a glimpse of the candidates.
Debts to Lawrence
"About the other night ... " Edwards joked to the crowd. "You may not have seen us, but we could see you, and you looked beautiful."
Campaign officials said later Saturday the train was supposed to stop but that the conductor hadn't been told. When they saw the disappointed crowd fading in the distance, they decided to make it up to the supporters, said Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife.
Fast forward 36 hours and a partisan Lawrence crowd was in a forgiving mood, cheering loudly, waving signs, and wearing anti-Bush T-shirts.
Does the fact John Edwards came back to Lawrence change your thinking on who you're going to vote for? "No, it doesn't change my thinking. I'd already made up my mind who I would be voting for. I will be voting for the Democrats."-- Vicki Fugett, homemaker, Lawrence
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"Y'all called this rally, and we're glad to be here with you," Elizabeth Edwards told more than 720 supporters packed into the old barbed wire factory turned nightclub on the banks of the Kansas River. "You have really blown us away."
In a Web blog posted Saturday to the Kerry campaign site, she wrote that she and her husband had a special place in their hearts for Lawrence. On a trip as a young couple with little money, she wrote, their car broke down in Lawrence and a kind mechanic helped them get back on their way.
"So, Lawrence, we owe you twice," Elizabeth Edwards wrote.
Both she and Kansas Democratic Party Chairman Larry Gates said Edwards' swing back through Kansas -- a state the Democrats have small hope of winning in what is expected to be a close Electoral College election -- showed the decency of the ticket.
"What classy people to do this for us," Gates said.
Edwards said political pundits criticized the campaign for spending an important campaign day in Kansas rather than working in a swing state the Democrats have a chance of winning.
Kansas traditionally has voted Republican in presidential elections, with President Bush beating Democrat Al Gore by 21 percentage points in 2000.
But Edwards dismissed history. Referring to the colors used by television news to designate Republican and Democratic states, he said, "There is no red state. There is no blue state. There is only one United States of America."
Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said later Kerry would be lucky if he was beaten by fewer than 21 points in Kansas this November.
"He is the first candidate of either party to receive no convention bounce since George McGovern in 1972," Diaz told The Associated Press. "John Kerry is the most liberal member of the United States Senate, and his out-of-the-mainstream views will not sell in Kansas."
Kerry and Bush both were in Kansas in May for dedication of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, though they did not share the stage. Kerry staged a pro-education rally with fellow Democrat Gov. Kathleen Sebelius on the Statehouse steps.
Inside and outside
On Sunday, Edwards' speech was supposed to be in Buford M. Watson Jr. Park, but heavy rains through the morning chased the event indoors.
By the time the candidate arrived, the rain had stopped and an estimated crowd of as many as 2,000 people couldn't get inside Abe & Jake's. So the candidate spoke for about an hour inside, then went outside to speak. Many of the supporters who couldn't get in also heard the earlier speech over speakers hurriedly installed to accommodate the crowd.
During Edwards' talk in Abe & Jake's, the candidate's small children, Emma Claire, 6, and Jack, 4, walked around the stage, sometimes wandering close to Edwards as he spoke. At times, older sister Cate, a recent graduate of Princeton University, corralled her younger siblings.
"I'm used to being interrupted," the candidate said.
But Edwards, removing his jacket, revved up the crowd by focusing on "kitchen table" issues he said showed how Bush's economic policies had produced two distinct Americas.
One comprises a privileged class that has excellent schools, health care and job security, Edwards said, while the rest of the country is struggling to pay bills, dealing with layoffs and skyrocketing health care costs, and unable to save for the future.
"The truth is that we still live in a country where there really are two different Americas. There's one for all those families who have lived the American Dream, never have to worry about anything. And then there is one for everybody else. It doesn't have to be that way. We can build one America that works for everybody," he said.
An emotional chord
Edwards said if Kerry were elected, the Democratic team would increase the federal minimum wage, make health care more accessible and provide tax credits for college tuition -- even free tuition for people who devote two years to community service.
He said an economy that produced full-time employees who worked hard but remained under the poverty line was "morally wrong," and he said he and Kerry would make sure that wouldn't continue.
Edwards also said Kerry would provide resources and teachers to improve struggling public schools.
The senator from North Carolina also spoke of the unfairness of racial discrimination and called on Americans to confront the issue head-on "everywhere, everywhere, everywhere."
"We want our children and grandchildren to be the first generation to grow up in an America no longer divided by race," he said.
Wanda Klaben, of Lawrence, fit the description of the poor working mothers Edwards mentioned in his speech, and the notes he hit about the financial struggles of many Americans struck an emotional chord with her.
"I loved the speech," Klaben said moments after Edwards addressed the crowd inside Abe & Jake's, her eyes brimming. "I've worked two jobs all my life to support two kids."
She was accompanied by her 19-year-old son, T.J. Bross. Klaben said she and her son both were attending Kansas City Kansas Community College with hopes of improving their lives.
"We can't afford KU, but we're working on it," she said.
Without naming Bush, Edwards attacked Republican negative campaigning.
"They're trying to take this campaign for the highest office of the land down the lowest possible road. You can reject this tired, old, hateful politics of the past," he said.
Edwards said Kerry was a man of courage, volunteering for dangerous duty in Vietnam, where he was decorated for valor and wounded. "Strong, decisive, courageous. Is that not what we deserve in a commander in chief?" Edwards asked.
Edwards said the Democratic White House team had a plan to win the war in Iraq, restore the United States' stature in the world and enlist allies to help reconstruct Iraq.
He vowed that he and Kerry would make sure that "no young American man or woman ever goes to war needlessly because America has decided to go it alone."