George Stephanopolous reports that key members of the John Edwards campaign had determined to sabotage his campaign if he took the lead for the Democratic presidential nomination.  The insiders had come to believe that Edwards had indeed had a sexual affair with Rielle Hunter and that exposure would doom Democrats to defeat.  They now claim that they would have taken steps to kneecap their own candidate to keep him from winning the nomination — but how plausible is this story?

I’ve talked to a lot of former Edwards staffers about this. Up until December of 2007, most on Edwards’ staff didn’t believe rumors about the affair.

But by late December, early January of last year, several people in his inner circle began to think the rumors were true.

Several of them had gotten together and devised a “doomsday” strategy of sorts.

Basically, if it looked like Edwards was going to win the Democratic Party nomination, they were going to sabotage his campaign, several former Edwards’ staffers have told me.

They said they were Democrats first, and if it looked like Edwards was going to become the nominee, they were going to bring down the campaign.

I don’t doubt that they told Stephanopolous this story, but it rings hollow.  First, did any of them quit the campaign after coming to this conclusion?  If they were really convinced that Edwards had acted unethically and became that disenchanted with him, their first impulse should have been to quit.  This explanation has them continuing to work for a man they now say was too compromised to run as the ticket’s headliner, but doesn’t their own continued presence and support mean either that they didn’t believe that at the time, or that they were just collecting a paycheck and didn’t care?

For that matter, the staffers could have leaked the story to the press.  We had some indications in October 2007 that the LA Times was holding back a salacious story on one of the candidates, and everyone now assumes that was the Edwards-Rielle Hunter story.  They could just have easily shopped the story to the New York Post, Washington Times, or one of the conservative political publications — or for that matter almost anywhere else in the press, which had already started fawning over Obama.  Why wait until it got close?  It would make more sense to kneecap Edwards quickly before it damaged the Democratic ticket entirely.

Also, let’s remember where Edwards was in December 2007: a very, very distant third to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton nationwide.  Edwards surprised Hillary by just barely edging her for second place in Iowa, but that was the lone high point of the entire campaign.  His cheesy and hypocritical “Two Americas” populism got eclipsed by Obama’s in 2007, and by December 2007, the race had clearly come down to Hillary as the favorite and Obama as the challenger.  It’s pretty easy now to claim that Edwards’ staff was poised like a mongoose to kill off his presidential aspirations if he would have looked as though he had a prayer of winning.  By that time, Edwards was all but finished anyway, and everyone knew it.

One last question: would they have broached their conclusions if Edwards had been selected as a running mate by either Obama or Hillary?  Why wait for so long to pull that trigger?  By the time Edwards got caught by the National Enquirer coming out of Hunter’s hotel room in July, Obama could have already publicly selected a running mate, and it could have been Edwards.

I’m smelling a heaping helping of self-serving effluvium in this story.  I don’t doubt they’re telling the tale, but it’s sheer fantasy meant to bolster some tarnished reputations.