A candidate built around his personal experiences

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Election 2004 --- The Democratic Ticket

Kerry Selects Edwards

July 07, 2004|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In his bid for the presidency earlier this year, Sen. John Edwards often arrived at campaign events as John Mellencamp's "Small Town" blared over the loudspeakers.

Though he had the good looks, expensive haircut, sparkling smile and Southern charm of the successful trial lawyer he once was, this son of mill workers built his candidacy around his small-town roots, telling voters that he could relate to the struggles of working-class Americans because he has never forgotten the difficult days of his youth.

His childhood in the mill towns of the Carolinas and Georgia during the segregated 1950s and 1960s was the foundation for his populist campaign theme that there were "two Americas" - one for the well-off, who enjoy satisfactory health care and good schools and access to government services, another for the poor and underprivileged, who can't count on any of those things.

That lower-middle-class background is part of a compelling life story that combines overwhelming success with devastating tragedy, one that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry hopes will help him win the independent, moderate and swing voters Edwards appealed to when the two men battled each other in the primaries.

"He is very much a candidate built around his own personal experiences," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"He's not a policy wonk. You can't say he's a skilled parliamentarian. His strength arises from his own experiences and skill sets."

Connects with voters

Those skills - persistence, eloquence and a Bill Clinton-like ability to connect with voters - have propelled the meteoric rise of Edwards, 51, a political unknown until his run for the Senate six years ago.

Even Kerry took a jab at his limited experience, saying during the primary race: "And people call me ambitious?"

But while Edwards was a political nonentity until 1998 -he hadn't even voted in some local elections - he quickly made a name for himself as the junior senator from North Carolina. By 2000 he was on Al Gore's short list of prospective running mates.

James Carville, the former strategist to Bill Clinton, once said Edwards was the best campaigner he had ever seen. Other political analysts note that he rarely makes the kinds of mistakes that novice politicians generally are vulnerable to.

"I don't think John Edwards will ever embarrass John Kerry," says David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist who worked on Edwards' presidential campaign. "He will be very disciplined and on message."

And much of that message will be his own connection with middle America, his optimistic, up-by-the-bootstraps saga.

Upon the birth in 1953 of their first child, Johnny, in Seneca, S.C., Bobbie and Wallace Edwards had to borrow $50 to pay the hospital bill. The parents moved among mill towns in the South before settling in Robbins, N.C., a small rural community in the Piedmont where Johnny went to public school.

The first person in his family to attend college, Edwards went to North Carolina State University and enrolled in textile studies. But rather than take on his father's trade, he chose law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There he met a fellow law student, Elizabeth Anania, the daughter of a Navy pilot. They married in 1977, soon after graduation.

After starting their careers in Nashville, the two lawyers returned to North Carolina where Edwards began his work as a personal injury lawyer, representing people who had been injured, often children, and winning record judgments.

Building a fortune

With charisma and a competitive streak that even his opponents admired, Edwards became a multimillionaire, trying dozens of personal injury cases, including one in 1997 in which he won $25 million for a 5-year-old girl injured after getting stuck in the drain of a wading pool. A few months later, he won a $23 million judgment for the parents of a baby born with brain damage.

He often took enormous gambles, turning down giant settlement offers in the belief that the jury would return even more generous awards.

"Self-doubt is not one of his weaknesses," says Guillory.

Along with amassing his own personal fortune - which North Carolina Lawyers Weekly reported at $38 million - Edwards honed courtroom skills that served him well when he turned his sights on elective office.

His legal career earned him the support of fellow trial lawyers, who largely underwrote his presidential campaign. They contributed most of the $11.6 million he received from the legal profession, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But trial lawyers are also considered the nemesis of corporate America, which came to view him with skepticism, if not disdain.

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