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John Edwards's quest to sway a bigger jury

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2003


John Edwards moves his gaze smoothly from person to person, around the audience of 200-plus at Cedar Rapids' Legion Arts gallery, first laying out proposals on jobs, then healthcare, then education.

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There are the nurses in purple T-shirts, the pharmacist who asks about drug imports from Canada, the divorced dad who pleads for fathers' rights. A fluffy striped cat wanders among the chairs. A little boy squirms in his seat; the candidate, who has little ones of his own, flashes a fatherly smile.

As Mr. Edwards speaks, some in the audience begin to nod, slowly but perceptibly, like the jurors he used to woo in his days as a trial lawyer. They're with him, and they're with the case he's making - that he shares their values, not those of the president, who "goes down to his ranch in Texas and walks around in his big belt buckle," says the first-term US senator from North Carolina, his voice dripping with disdain.

In his 20 years as a practicing attorney, Edwards won his share of high-profile personal-injury cases - babies injured at birth, a girl severely injured by a swimming pool drain, a teenager who committed suicide right after release from a psychiatric hospital. Some judgments topped $20 million. Closing arguments by Johnny Edwards (his given name) have become legend; other lawyers would come to court just to watch.

For John Edwards the presidential candidate, the jury is still out. He can draw a crowd in Iowa, and sits atop polls in South Carolina, home of the first Southern primary (Feb. 3), but he has yet to break out of the pack of nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination.

Winning the hearts of Iowans, hosts of the first presidential nominating contest (Jan. 19), seems a task made to order for a politician who knows how to work a crowd. First, there's the look: Edwards doesn't dress like a rich senator. On a recent swing through Iowa, his uniform was khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up, no tie, no jacket, no Rolex. Then there are the hands; Unlike Al Gore, he knows what to do with them, almost shaping his arguments in the air. Whether in a union hall or a living room, he projects relaxed confidence.

Over and over, Iowans who see him up close say, "He's one of us, but with a Southern accent." Indeed, in his speeches, Edwards emphasizes his small-town "son of a mill worker" roots and glosses over his years as a trial lawyer, his wealth, and his five years in the Senate. Interviews with Iowans at Edwards events revealed that about two-thirds didn't know that he was a trial lawyer or that he is wealthy.

The senator's stump-speech spin on his life story is surely a calculation. But, he says, if there's anything he learned from his courtroom years that applies to politics, it's that you can't fool people.

"You're living in never-never land if you think you can," says Edwards in an interview in his van at the end of a long day of campaigning. "When you're speaking to voters ... the single most important thing that you have is your credibility. They listen to both the substance of what you're saying and the way you say it, to determine whether they think you're being straight with them. I think it's like a threshold test: If you don't meet that test, nothing else matters. And I think the same thing's true in courtrooms."

Edwards isn't shy about answering a question with "I don't know." And sometimes, he says, you have to tell jurors - and voters - things they don't want to hear. But he's learned that "you better be the first one to tell 'em, because otherwise they'll think you're hiding it from 'em."

As it happens, there isn't much in his Iowa speeches that the locals argue with - including his protectionist stance on jobs (standard North Carolina fare, but at odds with many Democrats nationally), support of agricultural subsidies, and concerns about civil liberties. "The Washington people," he tells voters, had cautioned him on raising that last point. But two years into the war on terror, this exhortation - "We cannot let people like John Ashcroft take away our rights, our freedom, our liberty, our privacy" - is his biggest applause line.

Up by the boot straps and 'little guy' causes

In many ways, John Edwards's 50 years of life have seemed charmed. Blessed with a Pepsodent smile and the drive to succeed, he has the kind of up-by-the-bootstraps life story that the likes of George W. Bush and Howard Dean can't match.