For Edwards, Senate is a steppingstone

WASHINGTON — 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."

Edwards' role in the impeachment proceedings earned tributes from his colleagues and made him a fast ally of Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, then the majority leader. It also brought him the grudging respect of some Republicans, who recognized that the telegenic Edwards, with his Southern drawl and self-possessed style, could be a potent weapon for the Democrats.

Using the phrase for allowing a colleague to have his say on the Senate floor, one Republican told the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call at the end of Edwards' first year: "I got a rule: Never yield to John Edwards."


Daschle recruited him in 2000 to be the party's public face on yet another high-profile issue that happened to be one of Edwards' areas of expertise: patients' rights in managed health care plans.

Edwards, whose firm had handled cases in which patients battled their insurance companies, teamed up with Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts to craft a bill designed to give patients new rights. The measure passed the Senate but died in the Republican-led House, and ultimately failed.

"It's his proudest accomplishment, and at the same time his greatest disappointment," said Mike Briggs, an Edwards spokesman.

Complex issues

Edwards built a reputation for being able to distill complex issues into easily understandable terms. But what really caught colleagues' attention was Edwards' mention on a short list of potential running mates for Al Gore - and his obvious interest in the job.

Edwards has worked on education, health care and homeland security issues, hewing mostly to the standard Democratic line. He has also reached across party lines, working with Sen. Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, on a measure to speed less-expensive generic versions of brand-name drugs to market, and with Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, on a bioterrorism bill.


Edwards first tried his hand at foreign policy and defense matters in 2001, when he joined the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, a slot that allowed him to travel abroad. As he weighed a run for the presidency, he toured the speech circuit pitching domestic security ideas, among others.

He has walked a tightrope in the Senate on trade issues, opposing some major trade pacts but supporting a measure to grant normal trade status to China. He also voted to revive the president's "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade pacts and speed them through Congress. Both measures were opposed by labor unions and by many Democrats who said they would hasten the flow of jobs out of the United States.

Edwards said the China bill would help farmers and high-tech companies in North Carolina. And he fought to attach to the fast-track measure provisions that would protect his state's textile industry. When those provisions were dropped, Edwards switched his vote and opposed the fast-track measure.

He also had a change of heart on the Iraq war. In late 2002, he voted in favor of authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq; a year later, in the thick of his presidential run, he voted against spending $87.5 billion to fund the war. Kerry did the same. Both men say they switched because Bush botched the Iraq war and misled the nation about the reasons for it.

That vote came about a month after another Edwards decision that will probably have more far-reaching consequences for his future: his announcement in September that he would not run for re-election to the Senate.

"That was him saying, 'I'm John Edwards. I'm running for president. The Senate is not my future,'" said Guillory. "Which, of course, everybody had suspected since he got there."


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