WASHINGTON -- This presidential campaign may offer a test of whether poverty can make a comeback as a political issue.
For more than two years, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina has persistently focused on the plight of the poor and working class, joining strikers on picket lines, campaigning for an increase in the minimum wage and, before he officially launched his presidential campaign, working part time at a poverty center he founded.
As a candidate, Edwards speaks of poverty as "the great moral issue of our time." He has committed to a plan that he says will eliminate poverty in 30 years. The nation's response to its 37 million poor, he decreed in a speech to the National Press Club last year, "says everything about the character of America."
The top-tier Democratic presidential contenders will be asked to squarely address the issue of poverty tomorrow evening. Edwards and Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois will appear at a forum on moral values and poverty broadcast on CNN and sponsored by Sojourners/Call to Renewal, a liberal religious group that concentrates on social justice issues.
The Republican presidential candidates have their own plans for energizing the economy. But Republicans and conservatives often argue that far-reaching welfare programs breed dependency, hurting the poor in the long run, and that the best way to lift people out of poverty is to create a robust economy that provides jobs and opportunities.
Poverty once held an important place in Democratic presidential politics. Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal lifted up the poor and realigned the nation's politics. Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a war on poverty in his 1964 State of the Union Address as he was gearing up for his re-election campaign. And Robert F. Kennedy's passionate commitment to alleviating poverty was a core theme of his 1968 presidential campaign.
But since the 1960s, leading presidential candidates generally have not focused on the plight of the poor as a central issue, though the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's campaigns in 1984 and 1988 were an exception. Given popular resentment of welfare dependency and conservative criticism that personal behavior had contributed to the persistence of an underclass, most candidates found it more fruitful to concentrate on the struggles of the middle class.
"Senator Edwards was very gutsy to do what he's done. Certainly, he's done it against the conventional wisdom of nearly all Democratic strategists," said Robert Borosage, who was issues director for both Jackson campaigns and is co-director of the liberal Campaign for America's Future. "Political consultants will tell you that poor people don't vote and middle-class people, when they're feeling squeezed, aren't generous."
Edwards might be an imperfect messenger for a campaign themed on poverty. Though he was raised in modest circumstances as the son of a mill worker, he accumulated a multimillion-dollar fortune as a trial lawyer that has left him open to charges of hypocrisy. He has been criticized for charging $400 haircuts to his campaign, living in a 28,000-square-foot mansion and working as a part-time consultant for a hedge fund involved in subprime lending that he has condemned as exploitative.
Yet Edwards' campaign has resonated with the party activists who dominate the Iowa caucuses, and polls show him leading the field in the important first presidential nominating contest. In addition to his focus on poverty, Edwards also adopted other liberal populist causes, backing universal health insurance and meting out some of the harshest criticism of the Iraq war. He apologized for his Senate vote in 2002 to authorize the use of force there.
So far, the other two front-runners have not concentrated on poverty in their campaign speeches. Clinton delivered a speech last month on rising income inequality, but she focused on the threat she said it posed to middle-class families.
Obama's work as a community organizer in economically depressed neighborhoods on Chicago's South Side suggests he may feel a special connection to the poor. But in the first few months of his campaign, he has stressed issues with broader appeal, such as opposition to the Iraq war and his plan to expand access to health insurance.
Republican candidates, who advocate helping the poor by improving the economy, will be invited to discuss the issue at a forum in September, Sojourners officials said.
Peter Edelman, a former aide to Robert Kennedy who quit the Clinton administration in protest over welfare reform, sees evidence of poverty re-emerging as a national concern.
"I think it's coming back. It's unformed, as yet," Edelman said. "There's a rising concern in the country about inequality. There's concern about giveaways to the really wealthy, and there's concern about economic insecurity. The poverty issue is embedded in that."
Mike Dorning writes for the Chicago Tribune.