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Campaign Profile:  John Edwards - 2004-01-09


One of the youngest and least politically-experienced Democratic presidential candidates is positioning himself to be the underdog contender - in hopes that he can persuade American voters to choose him to send to the White House. In interviews and at public appearances, Senator John Edwards casts himself as the champion of ordinary people - someone who is always working to defend them from the threats posed by greedy special interests.

On television, 50-year-old John Edwards looks younger than his age. His apparent hope, though, is that his boyish fresh-face and credentials as an outsider will work to his advantage.

"Who is in the best position to change what's going on in Washington? People who have spent a lot of time there? People who have spent most of their lives in politics, or somebody who comes from a very different place, who's been fighting these people all his life? That's me, and that's why people should vote for John Edwards," he said.

Candidate Edwards is relatively new to Washington. His election to his current position as U.S. senator from the U.S. state of North Carolina, in 1998, marked his entry into politics. For 20 years prior to that, he was one of the highest-paid trial lawyers in the country - winning legal battles mostly fought on behalf of ordinary people against insurance companies and medical providers.

At a recent debate among Democratic presidential candidates, Senator Edwards accused these same types of special interests of controlling the White House.

"Whether we're talking about drug companies, insurance companies, whoever we're talking about tonight - they've been here a long time," he said. "We have an unwholesome alliance between the president of the United States, who is, in fact, supposed to stand up to those people and stand up for the American people. And he is completely married to them."

Senator Edwards may be inexperienced in the ways of Washington, but colleagues in the U.S. Senate say he is a quick study and has an impressive common touch.

Many of his political ads stress his humble background.

I grew up in a small town. My dad worked in a mill. I played high school football, went to this church and met [wife] Elizabeth 30 years ago in law school. Everything I've done comes from the values I learned in that small town.

Nationwide, Senator Edwards lags far behind several other Democratic front-runners. But his chance may come in the Democratic primary in the U.S. state of South Carolina in February, where different polls show him leading the pack, with about 16 percent support in the state.

Duke University Professor John Aldrich, in Senator Edwards' home state of North Carolina, says it is the candidate's ability to relate to ordinary people that may help him.

"Remember, he [Edwards] was born in South Carolina. And lived next door [in North Carolina], and so, is rather more comfortable in relating to the public of a state like South Carolina," he said. "So, in the end, it may very well be the people who just can't make up their minds will go with the person they feel most comfortable with."

Professor Aldrich says the most significant strike against the youthful candidate is his lack of political experience on global issues.

"In this particular year, it seems to me that this [inexperience] is also something of a weakness for him - that is, when foreign policy - such as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the wars against terrorism - loom large, we tend to want more experienced people," he said.

Senator Edwards supported the president in going to war with Iraq. But he has maintained that the United States should do more to include the United Nations and other allies in the Iraqi reconstruction effort.

Professor Aldrich says one way the recent capture of Saddam Hussein could work in Senator Edwards' favor is if Americans think U.S. work in Iraq is finished and start to turn their attention back to domestic issues.

Senator Edwards has outlined his ideas in a 60-page booklet that includes plans to create more jobs, beef up domestic defense, provide health care for every child and provide a free first year of schooling in public colleges.

John Edwards' U.S. Senate seat is also up for re-election in 2004. But he has decided not to run for it - focusing his energies instead on seeking the presidency.

Professor Aldrich says this may hurt Senator Edwards' chances of running for the top office again in the future.

"He [Edwards] could conceivably run, just if he gets enough celebrity status, he could conceivably run for president again in four years," he said. "But given that he was relatively inexperienced already, it would be much stronger to have an office space from which to run, but I think he cut that off."

Professor Aldrich concludes that for John Edwards' quest for the White House, it may be now or never.

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