WASHINGTON—Hours after telling the world that his wife's cancer had returned for good, John Edwards was in New York raising money.
Cancer or no, the campaign goes on. And that means Edwards must continue to court big-time donors despite questions that might arise over the viability of his second run for president.
Already, he trails far behind front-runners Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in fundraising for the Democratic nomination. Political observers have said top-tier candidates must prove by the next finance-reporting deadline, March 31, that they have what it takes to stay in the race.
Still, Edwards has led in crucial polls in Iowa, the home of the first caucus. And he's been working hard in Nevada, another early-round primary. He'll be there again Saturday morning at a health-care forum sponsored by the Service Employees International Union, which he's been courting.
In the short term, major donors will pay close attention to how Elizabeth Edwards acts, Duke University political scientist David Rohde said.
"If she's functioning OK, then there's not much impact," Rohde said. "The public will see them going on, and they won't think he's selfish because he's out there. I think if donors believe he can in fact go on with his campaign, they will in fact make the investment if he looks attractive on other grounds."
The announcement doesn't seem to have affected Edwards' fundraising so far.
Theodore Babbitt, a lawyer in West Palm Beach, Fla., was calling would-be donors Thursday afternoon and Friday.
"So far it hasn't made any difference whatsoever," he said between calls. "I don't see how that affects either my raising money or the campaign. . . . If anything, it would help the campaign, from the standpoint of showing the courage of both him and his wife."
Investor Mark Erwin, who hosted a fundraiser for Edwards on Monday at his home in Charlotte, N.C., doubts that the news will have any impact on the campaign's fundraising.
"Anybody is subject to anything happening at any time," he said, "so the fact that John and Elizabeth have this serious issue to deal with is difficult, but it doesn't make it any more difficult to run. . . . That could happen to Obama or Hillary or anybody. All conditions change."
Erwin said the Edwardses' response to the news actually could help.
"Some people think he has really shown a lot of grace and strength in this," Erwin said. "And she has for sure. So he may have picked up some people who like the way he's handling this."
In 2004, Elizabeth Edwards was seen as an asset to her husband's campaign. Since then, with her widely publicized illness, a book tour and an appearance on Oprah Winfrey's TV show, she's become an even more public figure.
That popularity may help John Edwards now, but should his wife's health worsen, it could be the source of voter backlash, Rohde said.
"The fact that she's so popular will be a good thing for them if she stays well, but if she gets ill, it would be even worse for them," Rohde said.
Edwards spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield wouldn't say Friday how much Edwards had raised at the event Thursday in New York. He's continuing the fundraising calls, and he met with donors in New York on Friday morning, then was flying to Santa Monica, Calif., for an event at the home of actress Heather Thomas and entertainment lawyer Skip Brittenham.
Elizabeth Edwards, who was in Boston on Friday visiting her daughter, planned to be in Santa Monica as well.
Scott Huffmon, a political scientist at Winthrop University, said reactions might vary depending on individuals' points of view.
Edwards' supporters will rally around him, Huffmon said. Others may not.
"Other Democrats could see it as, `That's awful. I have great empathy for him, but he may be getting political gain from an unfortunate and horrible personal situation,'" Huffmon said. Republicans, he added, might criticize Edwards for carrying on the campaign at all.
"The million-dollar question is, as this gets masticated in the press and trickles down to the folks who are probably going to vote in the Democratic primary . . . how are they going to interpret it?" Huffmon asked. "Is it going to make them sympathetic to Edwards or is it going to make him less sympathetic?"
The couple might have been helped because of the way they made their announcement, said Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist in California who was Al Gore's press secretary in 2000.
"It's very rare in political life you see people be as honest and straightforward as they were," Lehane said. "A lot of candidates don't get the big thing right, and they got the big thing right."
It made a difference, he said, that Elizabeth Edwards herself took up much of the news conference and told listeners that she wanted her husband to go on campaigning.
Even as people wonder about John Edwards' continuing with the campaign, Lehane said, they also might consider what personal strength it takes for him to push ahead despite his wife's illness.
Voters and donors alike might take Edwards' reaction into consideration as they decide whether he should serve as president.
"The hardest day on the campaign trail is the easiest day in the White House," Lehane said. "Once you're governing, it's extremely hard."
"I think people will see him as tough enough to be president," Lehane said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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