Sunday, August 08, 2004

After Speeding by Kansans, Edwardses Return to Rally

August 9, 2004

LAWRENCE, Kan., Aug. 8 - Outsiders could be forgiven for thinking that no one on a presidential ticket would visit Kansas before Election Day.

For this small university town in a Republican county in a strongly Republican state, there would be no need for a Republican candidate to visit and no point for a Democratic one to, either.

But the loud cheers of a highly charged crowd lining railway tracks outside this town past midnight Friday briefly adjusted the national political calculus and brought John Edwards, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, flying into a state his party has little hope of winning.

On Friday, the crowd of several thousand had waited for more than three hours for the perpetually tardy Kerry-Edwards campaign to arrive aboard a 15-car train that includes an antique caboose used by President Harry S. Truman during his famed whistle-stop tour.

Members of the crowd amused themselves by chanting and accidentally cheered the arrival of an Amtrak train before the campaign train blasted by at top speed, leaving signs flapping and supporters disappointed.

Campaign officials blamed the conductor for failing to slow down, but Elizabeth Edwards, Mr. Edwards's wife, took the incident to heart.

Writing on the campaign's Web log the next morning, Mrs. Edwards declared she would repay the town for the loud cheers and for the kindness of a mechanic in the town who had once fixed a borrowed car that she and her then husband-to-be drove from North Carolina to the Grand Canyon in 1976.

"We owe you twice," Mrs. Edwards wrote in a posting Saturday morning. "Don't worry, we'll repay that debt. And soon."

To follow through on that promise, the campaign abandoned a long-planned day of campaigning alongside John Kerry in the important swing state of New Mexico.

The advance team worked overnight to prepare a park that included a train as backdrop, but torrential rains on Sunday swamped the venue.

Help came hours before the event in the form of Mike J. Elwell, a registered Republican and owner of a bar called Abe & Jake's Landing.

"I happened to drive by, and they really looked miserable there in the mud,'' Mr. Elwell said. "My place was empty, so I told them to come over if they wanted. Call it Kansas hospitality.''

Come over they did. Hand-drawn signs in the park and a message on the local cable channel sent about 1,000 people to the former barbed wire factory on the banks of the Kaw River, filling it to capacity and leaving more than 2,000 people stuck outside.

"I waited on the train tracks for three hours on Friday and for 90 minutes in the rain today, but it was worth it,'' said Mary De Coste, a Lawrence resident and longtime Democrat. "This country needs a change.''

Dispensing with the normal series of introductory speeches, Larry Gates, chairman of the state's Democratic Party, spoke only a few words before declaring, "You're a rock star in Kansas, Elizabeth.''

The Edwardses and their children, Cate, 22, Jack, 4, and Emma Claire, 6, took to the stage. Jack and Emma Claire waved American flags.

"Y'all called this rally and we're glad to be here with you,'' Mrs. Edwards said, as members of the audience let loose screams worthy of a rock concert.

Following his wife to the microphone, Mr. Edwards declared every state worthy of campaigning.

"For all those politicians and pollsters who say, wait a minute, why are you taking one valuable day to come back to Kansas to campaign, Kansas is a red state,'' Mr. Edwards said. "To John Kerry and I, there is no red state, there is no blue state, there is only one United States of America.''

After delivering a speech replete with his calls for a one America and ending with his declaration that "hope is on the way,'' Mr. Edwards went to a footbridge outside to deliver a shortened repeat performance to the crowd amassed there.

While the visit may not win Kansas for the Democrats, it may have left an impression on a few Republicans in the audience, including Mr. Elwell, the owner of the bar.

"I voted for Bush in the last election,'' Mr. Elwell said, "but let's just say I am undecided for now.''