When Sen. John Edwards comes to Durham Monday to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, he will do so not only as the newly-senior senator from North Carolina, but as a newly declared candidate for president as well.
Recent polls show that Edwards has gained ground in the 2004 Democratic presidential pack in the two weeks since he first announced an exploratory committee for the nomination.
The first-term Democrat-once named the nation's sexiest politician by People Magazine-announced the committee's creation Jan. 2 on The Today Show and reaped a blitz of favorable media attention as he promised to wage his campaign in the name of "regular people," contrasting himself with President George W. Bush. In an interview with The Associated Press, the senator decried the Bush administration as run "by insiders and for insiders."
"I believe I can be a champion for regular people. My own life experience allows me to see things through their eyes," Edwards said. "They are the people I grew up with, the people who worked with my father in the mill, the people I fought for as a lawyer. They're not the insiders, they don't have lobbyists, but they're the heart and soul of this country, and their voices should be heard."
Duke political experts said Edwards' personal story would lend credibility to that crusade.
Raised in Robbins, N.C., the son of a textile mill worker, Edwards graduated from North Carolina State University before earning his law degree at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"I don't think he's trying to come across as a regular guy," said Michael Munger, professor and chair of political science. "He's trying to appeal to the regular guy."
After law school, Edwards turned to a different kind of campaigning-winning jurors, not voters, as a personal injury lawyer. Piling up a personal fortune and newspaper headlines for the massive awards he won in court, Edwards became one of the top trial lawyers in the South-he won the state's largest-ever verdict of $25 million in 1997.
But while experts believe Edwards' ties to trial lawyers-one of the Democratic Party's most deep-pocketed interest groups-will allow him to raise enough money for the 2004 race, those ties could backfire, especially in the midst of a debate over the possible excesses of medical malpractice suits. In a speech today, Bush is expected to renew a call on capping awards for suffering in such cases at $250,000. Last month, doctors went on strike in West Virginia, citing as too costly their insurance bills for malpractice protection.
John Transue, assistant professor of political science, said that while Edwards could focus on individual cases of fighting for "regular people," he should be wary of running for president as a trial lawyer.
"If I were him, I would not do that," Transue said. "It's going to depend on how he packages it."
Edwards had never held public office before becoming a senator four years ago-he defeated Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a conservative Jesse Helms protege, in one of the 1998 midterm election's most expensive and closely watched races.
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Indeed, the fresh appeal that draws many supporters to Edwards may also hinder him at a time when voters may be more comfortable with a candidate of greater experience, especially in foreign affairs.
"Saying, 'I want to help the common person,' works if you're talking to a jury, but on a national level, you've got to say more than that," Munger said.
To fight that image, Edwards, a member of the Senate's intelligence committee, has worked to bolster his credentials with a series of detailed policy addresses.
His nascent campaign has focused on improving homeland security, reforming education, promoting a more multilateral foreign policy and stimulating economic growth. To boost homeland security, Edwards has called for the creation of a new domestic intelligence agency to take over the Federal Bureau of Investigation's task of combating domestic terrorism. In a well-received address last fall, Edwards also proposed a "College for Everyone" plan that would make the first year of college at every public university free for students who could not otherwise afford it.
In an increasingly tight Democratic field that already includes outgoing Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, former House Democratic leader and Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and the Rev. Al Sharpton, experts have mixed views on whether such a fresh face could emerge from the primaries with the nomination.
Munger said Edwards' liberal voting record will help him in the primaries, where left-leaning voters and party activists have more influence than in the general election. In addition, as the only Southern candidate currently in the race-which could change in the event of a run by Sen. Bob Graham of Florida-he has the geographic edge in the vital South Carolina primary next February. Edwards is also hoping that Democratic voters remember that the only successful Democratic presidential campaigns in the last 30 years have been those of Southerners-Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Munger cautioned that Edwards' lack of experience in public office, and particularly his perceived lack of expertise on foreign policy issues, could damage him.
Furthermore, Transue noted that regardless of which Democrat wins the nomination, an extended economic downturn could make Bush more vulnerable.
"The best [election] forecasting models always rely on the economy," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.