For Edwards, Senate is a steppingstone

Campaign: His legislative record is thin, so the charismatic Democrat focuses on life experiences and keeps his eye on the White House.

Election 2004

February 27, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Sen. John Edwards likes to tell audiences on the presidential campaign trail, "I have been preparing for this fight my entire life."

It is something his colleagues in the Senate have known practically since they met the handsome North Carolinian, who brought his courtroom-honed debating skills and homespun charisma to Washington in 1999.

During Edwards' one-term Senate career, he has attracted attention more for his driving ambition and oratorical talent than for any legislative achievement or signature idea.

Pegged early on as a rising Democratic star, Edwards nonetheless has a thin record. Still, he has never been far from the spotlight on Capitol Hill, from the impeachment case against President Bill Clinton to the battle royal over managed health care.

Edwards, 50, has been candid during his presidential bid about his modest legislative experience; in fact, in a campaign that has focused on ordinary people and working families, the former trial lawyer has been eager to paint himself as an outsider untainted by politics.

But as he battles John Kerry, a Senate colleague whose paper trail is as voluminous as Edwards' is scant, the senator is also fighting a perception among some that he is more style than substance, a candidate whose self-promotion has sometimes eclipsed his ability to get things done.

It is a criticism leveled by Republicans - whose efforts to paint Edwards as a showy, packaged candidate led them to brand him last year as the "Breck girl" - but also expressed privately by some Democrats who worry that Edwards' lack of foreign policy experience, in particular, would make him a weaker candidate against President Bush.

Some view Edwards' short stint in Washington as ideal for a presidential candidate - too brief to tie him down with a potentially damaging record, like the two decades of votes that have sometimes troubled Kerry's campaign, but long enough to establish himself as an appealing figure.

"He's less encumbered. He can be a lot more agile in terms of defining his positions," says former Rep. Dan Glickman, a Kansas Democrat who now heads the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

"The downside," Glickman said, "is that people are looking for foreign policy experience. He may not have a long enough record, or the kind of texture of experience that tells you who this man is and what he would be like as president."

That potential gap was on display this week, when Edwards pleaded ignorance about a $4 billion dispute between the United States and the European Union over a U.S. tax break for exporters, telling the Los Angeles Times, "I'm not sure I even know what you're talking about."

Real-world experience

On the campaign trail, Edwards tries to use his real-world experience to fill in the legislative blanks. Challenged last week about whether his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement predated his run for the presidency, Edwards found himself without a recorded vote - or even a Senate speech - as proof of his position on the pact, which passed before he ran for the Senate.

So, he used his life story to distinguish his approach on trade from that of Kerry, who backed NAFTA.

"I have seen personally the impact of trade," said Edwards, who often mentions that his father was a mill worker. "I have lived with it myself, and for me, it's personal."

Edwards' ability to draw on his experiences to powerful political effect has been a hallmark of his career.

Few dispute that Edwards is gifted with a keen intellect and sharp debating skills. Those who have watched him closely also say he was able to win relatively quick prominence in a chamber known for rewarding seniority because he was in the right place at the right time.

Luck and limelight

Edwards won election to the Senate after spending $6 million amassed as a personal injury lawyer working for contingency fees of 25 percent to 40 percent, according to a former partner.

And it was his dazzling skill as a courtroom lawyer that led Senate Democratic leaders in 1999 to tap the little-known Edwards to play a major role in the impeachment proceedings as a defender of Clinton.

Edwards gave what many consider to be one of the most effective speeches during the final, closed-door Senate deliberations - a point-by-point rebuttal of the impeachment articles that he began by laying aside his prepared remarks so he could "speak to you from the heart."

"The word that leaps into my mind immediately is luck," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program in Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "He gets elected to the Senate and what's the first thing that's going on? ... A trial. What's he good at? A trial."

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