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SMITHFIELD, N.C. - It was 10 a.m. inside Shirley's restaurant and, as usual, Floyd Stewart was on a tear.
"John Edwards is probably the biggest opportunist that ever crossed the state of North Carolina. He's a hypocrite. He's got three multimillion-dollar houses, and he's out there preaching about "two Americas' and helping the little guy," scoffed the white-haired retiree, before pointing to Wallace Ashley Jr. walking into the diner.
"Now there's a yellow dog Democrat who would love John Edwards," bellowed Stewart as the morning regulars burst into laughter.
Even among Edwards fans, though, the view of the first term North Carolina senator and presidential candidate was not entirely upbeat in this town of 45 minutes east of Raleigh that boasts an Ava Gardner museum.
"I like him, but I don't think he would have been re-elected to the U.S. Senate if he'd run again. He spent so much time running for president, a lot of people didn't think he did much as a senator," said Ashley, a lawyer and Democrat from Smithfield, population 12,000.
Around his home state, such mixed assessments of Edwards are common as he continues his long-shot campaign for president. But outside North Carolina, he is emerging as one of the Democratic Party's brightest national stars, despite winning just one of 16 primaries and caucuses since the Democratic nomination voting began in January.
Democrats across the country are touting Edwards as the strongest pick that front-runner John Kerry could make for vice president. Democratic operative James Carville calls him the best speaker he has ever seen, his old boss Bill Clinton included. Prominent Republicans are taking notice too.
"Note to GOP headquarters: This guy is big trouble, and we are going to see more of him," Mike Murphy, a campaign adviser to Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Republicans, wrote recently on a political Web site. Edwards, he said, would be "a nightmare" to run against in 2008 if he manages to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
Take away his controversial career - personal injury lawyer - and Edwards could be a test tube concoction by campaign consultants: humble roots (the son of a textile mill worker); good looks (he's 50 but could pass for 35); Southern (like every Democratic president since John F. Kennedy); charming, savvy and articulate (proved by his string of multimillion-dollar verdicts in court); independently wealthy (he spent $6-million of his own money in his first Senate campaign).
What he lacks, by most estimations, is a real shot at winning the nomination without a meltdown by Kerry.
The only primary Edwards has won was in his native state of South Carolina, and his claim on the South was shattered last week when Kerry won primaries in Virginia and Tennessee.
But with three-quarters of the delegates needed for the nomination yet to be won, Edwards is pressing ahead, buoyed by the departure of former Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas. He is casting the election as a two-man race between him and Kerry.
Yet some observers believe Edwards may be seeking to elevate his stature and image for the 2008 presidential race, or may be positioning himself to be Kerry's vice presidential choice. Edwards has generally avoided attacking the Massachusetts senator.
Some longtime friends have doubts about the vice presidency.
"John has never so far as I know seen himself sitting in the second chair. Every time I've heard him (privately) speak of it he said, "No, I wouldn't be interested in the vice presidency,' " said Raleigh lawyer Wade Smith, Edwards' former law partner.
"But it could be awfully hard to turn down," Smith acknowledged. "I don't know if he can be convinced, but if he committed himself to doing it he would do it better than anyone else has ever done it."
Kerry's interest in Edwards is no sure thing. Before the South Carolina primary early this month, reporters overheard him dismissing Edwards to an aide.
"Edwards says he's the only one who can win states in the South. He can't win his own state," Kerry said. In 2000 Bush won North Carolina by nearly 13 percentage points, and polls have consistently shown Bush handily leading Edwards in the Tarheel State.
North Carolinians who remember his first political campaign, when he unseated Republican incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1996, see little shift in Edwards' central message. He still preaches middle class empowerment, standing up for ordinary people against powerful interests.
"The truth is, we live in an America where there are still two different Americas. There's one for those who have lives of privilege and power. They get everything they want and never have to worry about a thing. And then there's the America for everybody else," Edwards tells voters across the country. He speaks of two economies, two health care systems, two public school systems, two tax systems.
Edwards happens to live in the America of privilege.
In addition to a $3.8-million home in Washington, he owns a waterfront mansion on Figure Eight, a North Carolina island where security gates keep out the public. In Raleigh, he owns a sprawling white Colonial house in the prestigious Country Club Hills neighborhood.
Republicans often scoff at Edwards pitching himself as a millionaire populist, but many North Carolinians see no contradiction. He was, after all, the son of a mill worker and the first person in his family to attend college.
"He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth," said Dennis Davis, a Democrat in Selma, N.C. "He's hustled and worked hard and done well. That's the American dream."
Edwards stresses his old trial lawyer career as proof that he's a fighter for the less powerful - "people like you," he often says. Still, Faircloth in 1996 bashed Edwards as a rapacious trial lawyer, just as national Republicans have done over the past year.
"You know why that never worked?" asked Harry Blackley, the mayor of Selma. "Because as a lawyer John Edwards was always on the side of the people you wanted to win. He was helping the people who needed help."
That included Valerie Lakey, a 5-year-old who in 1996 was caught in a suction outlet at a public wading pool and was severely disabled after her intestines were sucked out of her body. Edwards represented the family suing the manufacturer of the drain cover and established in court that the company knew of prior cases where children had been killed or injured in similar accidents.
In court, Edwards cast the case as "corporate indifference" colliding with "absolute innocence." He reminded jurors about a conversation between Valerie and her mother, Sandy, when the little girl predicted no one would ever marry her because of the disability.
"And Sandy said, "Oh, that's not true,' " Edwards recounted in his closing argument. "And then she said, "Valerie, I'm sorry, so sorry, that this happened to you. I wish it happened to me instead.'
"You remember her answer? "Mommy, don't say that. I never want this to happen to anybody else.'
"Only you - only you - have the power to make that wish come true," Edwards concluded.
The jury awarded $25-million in damages.
The telegenic charmer's presidential bid has produced mixed emotions among North Carolinians. Some Democrats grumble about his giving up a Senate seat that may get picked up by Republicans. Others complain he failed to focus enough on North Carolina's needs.
Still, his home state warmed up to his candidacy. A News and Observer poll in January found 55 percent of North Carolinians supported his campaign, compared with 39 percent a year ago.
"We're all proud of him," said Mayor Blackley in Selma. "Hopefully, he'll know when to step aside and let Kerry have it, because we're all looking forward to Edwards as the vice presidential nominee."
- Information from the book "Four Trials" by John Edwards was used in this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or email@example.com[Last modified February 16, 2004, 01:31:39]
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