Challenging Bush: A Journey From a Mill Town Ends With a Run for President

Senator John Edwards's campaign for president hinges on the notion that he has not forgotten where he comes from. By JAMES C. McKINLEY Jr.

At a meeting of Democrats in Parkersburg, Iowa, Senator John Edwards is listening closely as a woman describes her struggle to afford a nursing home for her ailing mother. "I want somebody who really knows what it is like to struggle," she says at last.

Mr. Edwards draws closer to her, fixing her in his steel-blue gaze, his face earnest and sympathetic. "Well, I don't know it anymore, but I did know it growing up," he says. "You don't forget where you come from. You never forget."

Senator Edwards's campaign for president, which won the coveted endorsement of The Des Moines Register yesterday, hinges on the notion that he has not forgotten where he comes from. He usually arrives at his events to the blaring sound of John Cougar Mellencamp singing "I was born in a small town." And it never takes him long to tell his audience he was reared by working-class parents in mill towns of the Carolinas and was the first in his family to go to college. When Democrats ask him on the trail why they should choose a one-term senator who has spent most of his life as a trial lawyer rather than a candidate with more government experience, he says his roots give him an understanding of working folks' problems that career politicians lack. Working-class voters are the ones he believes President Bush has abandoned, and he asserts that they will trust John Edwards, just as North Carolina juries have trusted John Edwards in a dozen big cases.

"This president is shifting the tax burden from wealth to work and the working class," he railed at a forum in Des Moines. "I want this president to explain to middle-class working families why a millionaire sitting by a swimming pool getting a financial statement each month to see how much money he made is paying a lower tax rate than a secretary, than a firefighter, than a schoolteacher. This is not our America."

Yet the senator, having made a fortune in personal-injury law over the past two decades, is really more like the poolside millionaire than the schoolteacher, at least on the surface. He won his first and only race, for the United States Senate in 1998, with more than $6 million of his own money. Even though he may well be out of office within a year, he bought a second town house in Washington for $3.8 million a year ago because his wife found the first one unsuitable for their children.

Mr. Edwards is a strange political animal: a multimillionaire who harbors a laborer's anger; a man with an expensive haircut who wears a cheap digital watch and worn-down shoes; the owner of four houses who employs a live-in nanny and a housekeeper but still celebrates his wedding anniversaries at Wendy's because that was what he and his wife did when first married.

Perhaps more than any other candidate, he is running on the strength of his biography, portraying his rise in the courtrooms of North Carolina not merely as a climb up the social ladder but as a struggle to help working people like those he knew growing up. "The cause of my whole life is the cause of working people," he said.

His speeches often sound as though they could come from a union leader. He derides President Bush as an elitist and a "phony" who cares about nothing but protecting the wealthy. He likes to end his stump speech with the declaration, "I believe in an America where the family you are born into does not control your destiny."

Mr. Edwards and his team see a clear path to the nomination for a handsome populist with a Carolina drawl. They hope to do better than most political pundits expect in Iowa and New Hampshire, pulling out a third-place finish in each state, then trounce the competition in South Carolina, the senator's native state. If Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts are crippled by losses in the first two contests, Mr. Edwards could become a middle-of-the-road Southern alternative to Howard Dean.

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