Mr. Personality

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) sits about two feet away from me in the back of a sleek, black Dodge Durango SUV, a package of melting peanut-butter chocolate-chip cookies between us. We're speeding past fields and silos in southwestern Iowa, down a badly paved road to a $25-a-plate bratwurst-and-hamburgers fundraiser for a state senator, where Edwards will be a guest speaker. It's a Saturday in mid-May, and the corn in the fields around us is but a hint of green in the ploughed earth. Come summer, when the corn is as high as an elephant's knee, the Edwards campaign will begin storming the state on more than an occasional basis. By the time the corn is as high as an elephant's eye, the Iowa polls should also be more reflective of Edwards' real standing, says his Iowa co-Chair Robert Tully. September 2003 is when the 2004 Democratic presidential primary contest begins for real.

Right now, though, Edwards isn't worried about his standing in the polls. Sure, he's running nearly neck and neck at 3 percent in New Hampshire with retired Gen. Wesley Clark, a man who isn't even running for president, and he's been hard pressed to crack 8 percent in polls of likely caucus-goers in Iowa. Nationwide, Edwards places fourth or fifth in the field of nine declared Democratic presidential candidates, with between 5 percent and 8 percent of likely Democratic voters picking him in May's polls. Even in South Carolina, where Edwards was born and whose Feb. 3, 2004, primary will make or break his campaign, Edwards lags behind Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), according to an April poll.

Nor is Edwards terribly concerned about the buzz, which peaked in his favor between 2001 and 2002, when People, The New Yorker, The New Republic and other magazines ran puffy profiles of the senator. It helps that he doesn't read most of the articles about him or his competitors. If he did, he'd come across comments such as this one from Hastings Wyman, editor of the Southern Political Report: "What has surprised me is that I don't think [Edwards] is an automatic favorite in the South Carolina primary. One would assume he would be, because he was born there, and because his career developed next door, but he's kind of being looked at the same way [Sen. John] Kerry [D-Mass.] and Gephardt are being looked at." Gordon Fischer, the silver-haired chairman of the Iowa State Democratic Party, says, "Here in Iowa, we're used to grass-roots campaigning ... it's small groups, it's living rooms, coffee shops, church basements. [Former Gov. Howard] Dean [D-Vt.] has been here the most."

One reason Edwards is not too worried, despite growing chatter about his inability to break out of the pack of presidential hopefuls, is that his last -- and only -- campaign taught him one important lesson that he's hoping will stand him in good stead come 2004: Television matters. A lot. Especially in places such as South Carolina, whose Democratic Party members are not accustomed to the grass-roots style common in Iowa and New Hampshire. And especially in the other 14 states that will hold caucuses and primaries between Feb. 3 and the day the Super Tuesday states vote: March 2, 2004.

When Edwards ran for Senate in North Carolina in 1998, he was, according to one poll, 10 points behind his opponent, hog farmer and incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth, with just six weeks to go before the election and under bitter attack from a series of nasty TV ads. Edwards was a "slick-talking personal-injury lawyer," "Clinton clone" and "tobacco-taxing liberal," said the ads; one showed Edwards' nose "growing like Pinocchio's," according to The Charlotte Observer. Edwards poured millions into television and successfully fought off the attempt to smear him in terms just like those President Bush would likely use were Edwards to get the Democratic nomination. Edwards went on to win the general election 51 percent to 47 percent. The seven-person Democratic primary contest that year was won on similar terms: Edwards beat his nearest rival by outspending him 4-to-1 in a final two-month, $3.2 million advertising blitz while his opponent focused on a ground campaign and could afford only two weeks on TV. Edwards won 50 percent to 29 percent.

Now he's got plans to start the next TV campaign early, by running ads in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina by early fall, say aides. "We don't expect we're going to move in the polls until we're on TV," said one Edwards aide. "The first two quarters our primary aim was fundraising."

In April the Edwards campaign announced that it had raised $7.4 million in the first quarter of the year, instantly catapulting Edwards, a freshman senator with no prior political record, into the top tier of candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. With Bush poised to raise $200 million or more and the Republican Party currently holding a 3-to-1 financial advantage over the Democrats, the ability to raise big money could well mean the difference between winning and losing the general election, not to mention the primary.

In any other year, John Edwards would be an appealing candidate. Remarkably young looking for a 50-year-old, he's a warm, charming southerner in a country whose last two Democratic presidents were, too. He knows how to talk to people from all walks of life without talking down to them. He paints his life as a dreamy, all-American rags-to-riches (well, lower-middle-classes-to-riches) story punctuated by just enough tragedy to make us feel sympathetic to him, despite his current net worth valued at $8.7 to $36.5 million, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Edwards is relentlessly hardworking and has reached out to some of former President Bill Clinton's top aides, such as Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) President Bruce Reed, for advice and insight on developing a policy agenda.

Edwards' appeal is such that Bush and the Republican Party are, according to The New York Times, more frightened of facing him than other Democratic candidates. Despite his currently low poll numbers, he's an unusual figure: a full-on red-state guy who threatens to play on the Republicans' home turf. Though he hasn't yet shown he can do so -- he lost the white vote in North Carolina in 1998 but won thanks to urban support and high African American voter turnout -- the spooked Republican National Committee has nonetheless attacked him several times since he announced his candidacy on Jan. 2. He'll soon be subjected to a couple of harsh billboard ads in Iowa and New Hampshire from Americans for Job Security, a GOP-allied insurance industry front group, making him the only Democratic hopeful yet to come under fire in those states.

Rhetorically, Edwards is a natural populist. From his youth in company-owned mill towns, where everything from grocery stores to family homes belonged to the corporation, to his adult days as a trial lawyer fighting big insurance companies, HMOs and hospitals on behalf of people with medical or product injuries, big corporations were his enemy. North Carolina has a proud political tradition of populism, too, dating back to the 1890s, and when Edwards ran for office in 1998, his message was as populist as they come. He campaigned as "the people's senator" who would advocate for "regular people"; he'd protect Social Security, the environment, Medicare and tobacco, and fight for a patients' bill of rights. "We're not intimidated by some CEO," says Tully of Edwards' trial-lawyer mentality. "That's our job, to take these people on."

But Edwards' populism today is populism with a difference: It is a parsimonious populism. Where Gephardt, the other populist in the race, has proposed a universal health-care plan that would cost upward of $200 billion in its first year, Edwards has harped on the patients' bill of rights, which was first proposed in the House of Representatives in the year before Edwards took office and has yet to make it onto a president's desk. Getting that bill through the Senate, with a little help from powerful co-sponsors Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), is the legislative accomplishment Edwards says he's proudest of. "It's important to me personally," he says.

Perhaps Edwards' emphasis on low-cost administrative solutions to the nation's problems is to be expected in these times of busted budgets and spiraling deficits. The first part of his health-care agenda is a six-point plan that focuses on containing costs, largely through legal and regulatory mechanisms. He proposes revitalizing rural areas by bringing them enterprise zones and broadband Internet access. He advocates "college for everyone," but designed a plan that covers only one year of higher education -- and then only at state schools or community colleges. His proposals are often small, sensible and loaded with symbolic appeal. Indeed, they're reminiscent of the kind of platform the Clinton administration developed as a strategic response to the Democrats becoming a legislative minority in 1994. But while micro-initiatives may have been an acceptable response in a time of peace and prosperity, we no longer live in that world.

The question is whether, in a post-September 11 world -- and after four years of an administration that has proved itself bold to the point of shamelessness -- such cautious, methodical ideas will be enough to win voters' loyalties during a general election in which even a fundraising dynamo like Edwards will find himself massively outspent.

An even more immediate question is what it will take for Edwards to vault to the front of the primary pack, given the strong organizational, financial and issue-based competition he faces. While his campaign has focused on fundraising, Kerry, Lieberman and Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.) have taken the lead on national-security issues; Gephardt's long ties to labor have given him an edge as the populist in the race; and Dean and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) have energized anti-war liberals and disaffected independents. For Edwards to trump them all, just about everything would have to go right for him in the months ahead. He'd need to win big in South Carolina and beat expectations elsewhere. The liberal front-runners (Kerry, Gephardt, Dean) would have to bloody one another in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Edwards would need to top the two moderates (Graham, Lieberman) there and in the South.

Even if political pros lump Edwards in with the moderate Democrats in the race, Edwards himself denies having any particular philosophy of governance. "I don't analyze these issues on some ideological spectrum. That's not how I think about them. I think about the issues that I think affect the lives of working people, regular folks," Edwards tells me. "I'm trying to make their lives better." As for the coming contest with Bush, he says, "I don't think it's an ideological debate; I think it's a debate about what are the values of most Americans and how the president is completely out of touch with those values."

To the extent that Edwards eschews political labeling, he continues to try to make the debate about himself rather than about what his ideas represent. "A lot of my policy ideas are driven by my own experience, driven by the way I grew up," he says.

By personalizing the debate, Edwards seems to be hoping to avoid being labeled either an unelectable liberal or a DLC-style centrist. He's been criticized and praised as both in the past. By remaining a bit of a cipher, he can allow people to project whatever they want onto him, to see him as a progressive, as The Nation did in 1998, or as an advocate for traditional values. And by personalizing the race against Bush and turning a debate about economics into one about values, Edwards hopes to play to his own strengths -- namely his likeability -- and turn Bush's own down-home style against the president. "Just because you have yourself a new ranch and wear a big belt buckle doesn't make you a friend of rural America," Edwards likes to say. If he can make the debate about who's more trustworthy and who's more authentic, Edwards is counting on being able to win every time.

Edwards has been lauded in two years' worth of fulsome press accounts as having the potential to be another Bill Clinton, yet he is not, in fact, the kind of man who bowls people over with his prodigious grasp of policy details or a light-up-the-room charisma. He's not a "rock star," is how his voluble press secretary, Jennifer Palmieri, puts it. "Bill Clinton has this rock-star aura," she says of the former president, for whom she worked in the White House. "I remember the first time I saw him: It was like light was emanating from his silver hair. It's overwhelming ... . John Edwards doesn't overwhelm people; he connects with them."

Indeed, spend more than a few minutes with Edwards and it quickly becomes clear that it's virtually impossible to dislike him. He grows on you. He's funny and good-humored and talks respectfully to just about everyone. He's good-looking in that healthy, corn-fed, all-American kind of way that often plays well on TV, his flop of sandy brown hair unmarred by any normal signs of aging. He's got a great big laugh, and if he can't hear you, he's liable to lean over, place his meaty hand on your arm and ask you, with a lift of his eyebrows and kind smile, to repeat what you were saying. He talks like the practical, cautious state-school graduate that he is, using a simple, colloquial grammar made even more down-home by his heavy North Carolina drawl, which he's confident will be a political asset. "It helps that Ah talk lahk this," he says.

Born in Seneca, S.C., Johnny Edwards, as he was long known, moved around a fair bit until he was 12, when his family settled in the hamlet of Robbins, N.C. His father worked there for many years in a textile mill, rising to the position of mill supervisor, while his mother ran a small antique store and later worked for the U.S. Postal Service, delivering mail. Though the couple wasn't college educated and sometimes struggled, they weren't poor. Edwards played high-school football and went on to become the first person in his family to go to college.

He enrolled at Clemson University but dropped out in his first year, after a football scholarship fell through and he didn't have the money to continue. The next year he started at North Carolina State, graduating in 1974. That was quickly followed by a law degree from the University of North Carolina in 1977 and marriage to feloow lawyer Elizabeth Anania. The young couple moved to Nashville, Tenn., where Edwards spent the next five years working for Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander's former firm, defending big companies. In 1981 he returned to North Carolina and started working for a plaintiffs' firm, Tharrington, Smith, and Hargrove, where he discovered he had such a gift for trial law that he soon went on to found his own firm, Edwards & Kirby, LLP, with a law-school classmate. Over the years, Edwards would win judgments of more than $152 million in 63 cases, according to The Washington Monthly. Plaintiffs' lawyers typically keep about a third of what they win.

On a mid-afternoon in May, in a hotel ballroom in Ottumwa, Iowa, Edwards demonstrated some of his famous charm. Rushing from the Durango, he arrived before the audience with his tie loosened, his normally neat hair for once slightly disheveled and his shirtsleeves rolled up. As Edwards moved deep into his stump speech, he placed his right hand over his heart, as if unconsciously. With his left hand he gestured as he spoke, the perfect picture of forthrightness and commitment. "Y'all remember Bush traveling around the country and saying he was going to bring prosperity to every forgotten corner of America? Well how's he doing here?" he asked. Not so good, judging by the sound of the replies. Asked if they were doing better than they were four years ago, those gathered burst out with a resounding chorus of "No!" When Edwards spoke of "a world where wealth is inherited and where you hide, and hold on to everything you got," he crossed his arms tightly across his chest, like a child hoarding a favorite toy. When an audience member hesitated to clap for him, Edwards put the person right at ease. "You can clap for me if you like," he said with a smile. "In fact, I kind of like it."

With his amiable good manners, Edwards prides himself on meeting people where they are and then taking it from there. The trick to meeting people where they are, though, is figuring out where they're coming from. When he worked as a lawyer, he sometimes ran up to six different focus groups to see which trial strategies played best. It's harder to figure out where people are coming from on the campaign trail on a day-to-day basis.

As a result, Edwards is sometimes overly cautious, vague or evasive. Asked which issue Democrats should have focused on in 2002 that they didn't, Edwards replied, "I don't think there's one issue. I think we failed to distinguish ourselves." Other times his message of nonideological realism can seem so constrained it limns the border between pragmatism and pessimism. "What we ought to do is what we can do," he told a man worried about the impact of trade agreements on the local manufacturing sector in Ottumwa.

For Edwards, it all comes down to a question of trust, thickly defined, and that's something he learned how to win during all those years in the courtroom. "Every trial, every major trial, is about credibility," Edwards tells me. "It's not enough that they like you, it's not enough that they trust you, if they don't think you understand what's happening -- if they don't think you have a command of the substance of the issues, then they're not going to follow you. Because they want to do the right thing. I think exactly the same thing's true with voters. I think it's just harder and more difficult to reach voters. You've got a captive audience in the courtroom."

Edwards is counting on being able to win voters' trust. The question is whether being a fierce but pleasant critic of Bush with a lot of money and a passel of small, sensible proposals but no governing ideology is enough to do that. Juries are fundamentally different from voters in that they are passive audiences and their participation is involuntary. The information that juries receive and can consider is controlled by a host of strictures and laws. In Iowa, at least, the voters must actively and voluntarily caucus based on information set not just by formulas, but by their hearts. The case against Bush, Edwards often says, "is one of the easiest cases I've ever had to argue." But the task of developing a rousing agenda for the Democrats -- and for America -- that responds to the present times is a greater challenge. It's true that the case against Bush is easy and clear, and every hopeful in the Democratic race is making it. What's proving harder for John Edwards to make is the case for John Edwards.