Sunday, December 17, 2006

"Edwards offers progressive agenda"

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- The crowd packed every pew, every doorway and nearly every foot of floor space inside the little chapel to hear from John Edwards, and it seemed like the perfect place for the former senator and one-time presidential candidate to address his faithful.

Because these days, the North Carolina Democrat is not so much on the stump talking as he is in the pulpit preaching.

"It is not too much to say that the future of the planet is at stake," Edwards told the crowd spilling out of Rutledge Chapel during a recent speech at the University of South Carolina.

Gone are the days of a rookie senator launching a long-shot bid for the White House by telling the story of his childhood in the textile towns of the Carolinas.

Edwards intends to run in 2008, with an announcement planned late this month in New Orleans, two Democratic officials said Saturday. Edwards' spokesman would not confirm or deny that Edwards was going to enter the race.

The 2004 vice presidential nominee already has a retooled campaign agenda that is unabashedly progressive.
Today, Edwards tosses around phrases such as "universal health care" and "public campaign financing." He criticizes the Bush administration's "convergence of stupidity" on education and demands the immediate withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq.

"What you're seeing now is a process that started in 2004, when he put on his own clothes, basically, and said, 'I'm going to win or lose as John Edwards,' " said his wife, Elizabeth, who is recovering from a recent bout with breast cancer. "In that case it was 'lose,' but that doesn't mean you can't rewrite the ending."

That means moving on from the 2004 "Two Americas" stump speech that highlighted what Edwards saw as vast economic inequality. In its place is a bold list of policies and solutions that Edwards believes will help build "One America."

"Instead of just describing the problem, we need to focus on what we can do about it," he said.

Edwards has ditched a moderate health care overhaul in favor of a comprehensive health care plan to cover everyone in the United States - an approach considered politically taboo since President Clinton's failed attempt to create such a system early in his first term.

Edwards also has joined Teamsters President James Hoffa on a Miami picket line and sided with other unions in their fight with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. He has campaigned actively for a higher minimum wage and complained about federal bankruptcy laws he says keep people in a cycle of debt.

"Low-income families have been left the furthest behind," Edwards said. "And nobody's been their advocate."

He has embraced proposals for a rigid public campaign finance system aimed at eliminating big money from elections and called for an education policy that removes "every financial barrier" for students who want to go to college.

"Edwards has identified a message area that will give him a niche," said Chris Lehane, a longtime Democratic strategist who has worked on several presidential campaigns. "The issue of poverty reminds people about Democratic values."

Observers note that no one has won the White House by campaigning primarily against poverty and economic equality since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. While it is an issue that resonates in some places, it has not translated into votes nationwide for decades.

Unlike some potential rivals, Edwards lacks a $10-million-plus Senate account he can use for a possible bid. Rather, he still has several hundred thousands of dollars of debt from his 2004 White House bid.

It is not just the retooled agenda that make Edwards a different candidate today than he was in 2004. Then, he was four years into his Senate term - his first time in elected office after two decades as a trial lawyer. Only 2 percent of polled voters nationwide thought he should run for president.

"This time around he already has very high name recognition," said David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in South Carolina, the one state Edwards won in the 2004 primaries. "And ... since he hasn't been in the Congress and has a more 'outside-the-Beltway' image, his popularity is undiminished."

Edwards has used his time outside of the Senate to focus on issues related to poverty while building the groundwork for a national campaign. He has cultivated friendships with political leaders - from state representatives to U.S. senators - by helping raise some $8.5 million for Democratic candidates.

He has taken his renewed liberal message to 39 states since Election Day 2004, spending much of that time in Republican territory. That includes rural Iowa, a state he has visited more than a dozen times, as well as Texas and Montana.

Edwards has gone to Russia, China and Uganda, hoping to bolster his foreign policy credentials. The effort has included a public admission that he made a mistake by voting in favor of military action in Iraq.

Until Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he was considering a White House run, Edwards was viewed by many as the most likely challenger to former first lady and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the party's nomination.

This summer, Edwards led all other Democratic candidates in a Des Moines Register poll of voters in Iowa with the support of 30 percent of those polled. Clinton got 26 percent.

"John Edwards is resonating with people," said Iowa state senator Keith Kreiman, who endorsed Edwards in 2004. "I would be surprised if he doesn't win Iowa."

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