John Edwards: Could this boyish southerner be the new Clinton?

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The Independent US

Might this fascinating struggle for the Democratic presidential nomination be decided, not by policies or personalities, but by hairstyles? The choice is broad. You may admire the sculpted Grecian thatch of John Kerry, oozing experience and gravitas. Or you may prefer the silver-sleek post-military trim of retired General Wesley Clark, exuding competence and efficiency - even the functional short back-and-sides of Howard Dean. But the most handsome of all, surely, is the brown pelt of Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, lapping gently on his collar, soft and lush as high-quality fur.

Its perfect state of preservation sometimes makes the candidate of 50 (as his TV ads specifically and pointedly remind) look closer to 30. Ordinary men would sell their souls for such good fortune. Not, however, if you are running for President of the United States. In these fraught and terror-haunted times, which have seen America launch two separate foreign wars in the space of 18 months, youth is considered almost a liability on the campaign trail. John Edwards' fine head of hair may be John Edwards' greatest problem.

It was Kerry who won the Iowa caucuses. But thanks to his unexpectedly impressive second-place showing, this is also Edwards' moment. In barely a fortnight, in a still crowded field, Edwards has been transformed from amiable make-weight into serious contender. A similar result in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary would set him up nicely for victory in South Carolina the following week. And if that happens, who knows?

John Edwards is in a distinguished tradition of handsome, youthful Democrats to seek the White House, after JFK led the way in 1960. There was Gary Hart, whose vigour and new ideas lit up the 1984 primaries, and then Bill Clinton, to whom he is most commonly likened.

Like generals, politicians tend to fight the previous war. Jimmy Carter and Clinton, the only Democrats to win the White House since Kennedy, were both centrist Southerners (as was Lyndon Johnson who in 1964 retained a White House he had inherited). So, why not Edwards?

Like Clinton, he is fluent, very intelligent and personally attractive - so much so that People magazine in its November 2000 "Sexiest Man Alive" poll named him No 1 in the category for politicians. Both came from poor backgrounds. Clinton was born on the wrong side of the tracks in south-west Arkansas, and dubbed himself "the Man from Hope". Similarly, Edwards' very modest childhood in the upcountry North Carolina textile town of Robbins is central to his political identity.

His father was a mill-worker who rose through the ranks to become a plant supervisor. At his state high school, the boy born Johnny Reid Edwards was more interested in football than his studies. He even tried to win a football scholarship, but was not big enough. After state university, where he took a degree in textile technology, he went to law school.

One of his classmates was Elizabeth Anania - and many would say she has been as influential on John as Hillary has been on Bill. After they married in 1977, she, not he, was the Democratic activist. Edwards himself seems to have been little outraged by Watergate and Richard Nixon; indeed, both his parents were Republicans. By the standard of Bill Clinton who at the age of 20 was already telling friends of his ambition to become President, Edwards drifted into politics late.

Instead he became a trial lawyer and a very rich man. Over the 17 years before he entered the Senate in 1998, Edwards won verdicts totalling $152m, including $25m for a nine-year-old girl appallingly injured by a faulty swimming pool drain, the largest personal damages award in the history of North Carolina. Assuming a lawyer's take of 30 per cent or so, estimates of his personal fortune at $30m or more are probably not far from the mark.

In the Senate, Edwards has turned a trial lawyer's courtroom skills - persuasiveness, charm, and a brilliant command of detail - into huge political assets. But all the money in the world cannot buy experience. His greatest difficulty is to persuade people that he has paid his political dues, above all in foreign policy and national security.

Clinton, of course, did win the presidency with no Washington experience, and in the public knowledge that he had played fast and loose to avoid being sent to Vietnam without damaging what he famously called his "future political viability". But the climate in 1992 was very different. Saddam had been driven from Kuwait; the Soviet Union had imploded, and no one had even heard of Osama bin Laden. George Bush Sr lost to Clinton in part because voters thought he was too interested in foreign affairs. Today a candidate's highest hurdle is the commander-in-chief credibility test.

In 1960 JFK might have been an untested figure with a legislative record as slight as Edwards' is today. But he did have a notable record in the Second World War. Edwards was too young for Vietnam and, many would say, is simply too wet behind the ears to be President now. After all, Kennedy had already been re-elected once to the Senate when he announced his candidacy. Edwards had barely served half a term before it was obvious in 2002 he was planning a White House run.

But he was a star on Capitol Hill from the outset. No sooner had he taken his Senate seat in January 1999 than he was entrusted with part of the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Edwards' even-handed and surefooted performance, and his deftness on television, won wide praise. Quickly, he caught the eye of Al Gore as he planned his 2000 White House bid. In the end, Gore chose Joe Lieberman. Clearly, though, Edwards was a young man in a hurry, cut out for great things.

Some contend that this time around also, his true goal is the Vice-Presidency - and after Iowa, the talk shows have buzzed with talk of a Kerry-Edwards "dream ticket". But Edwards is after the top job. Last year he burnt his bridges by announcing he would not defend the Senate seat which he could have kept as political insurance, had he been aiming at the Vice-Presidency. And, he reasons, why not? After all, he had decided to run for the Senate against the odds, and won. So why not the Presidency?

And make no mistake, he has formidable qualities. Do not be misled by the cherubic, forelock-tugging image. He is tough, quietly but boundlessly self-confident and - as proved by the long period when he seemed to be going nowhere -- unflappable even when being written off. Some describe him as the writer and sage Walter Lippmann described Franklin Roosevelt before the presidential election of 1932: "A pleasant man without any important qualifications for the office." But that is to underestimate Edwards' drive and political skills. And everyone knows what became of FDR.

He makes few enemies. Unlike Dean, you can't help liking him. In Iowa, one reason Edwards did well was because when others went negative, he did not. He has a folksy accent, a winning smile, and the trial lawyer's gift of empathy and making complicated issues understandable to ordinary people. Edwards presents himself as the archetypal ordinary person, who understands from his own experience what it means to be short of money, at the mercy of power and privilege. As he reminds audiences in every speech, he is "a regular guy; the son of a mill-worker going toe to toe against the son of a President".

But there is another side to Edwards. The man who has succeeded at everything has also experienced the most wrenching personal grief. In 1995 he and his eldest son Wade, to whom he was exceptionally close, went to Kenya to climb Mount Kilimanjaro - in part to help the father overcome his fear of heights. The following year, aged just 16, Wade was killed in a car accident. Edwards hates to talk about the loss (though it was one reason he and Elizabeth decided to have two more children late in life, after Wade's death). But the tragedy is public knowledge. In mawkish American politics, where privacy counts for little and general impressions for all, such things do no harm.

In ideological terms, Edwards is no caricature liberal. His Senate voting record by Democratic standards is moderate to conservative. Were he to win the nomination, this might also help him to carry a state or two in the South that the Republicans swept in 2000. "This guy is a sleeper. You can't write him off," says Donna Brazile, Gore's campaign manager four years ago. And Tony Blair, Britain's own political boy wonder made good, thought enough of Edwards to invite him for a chat at 10 Downing Street in 2002. Perhaps it takes one to know one.

Edwards, however, is no American version of our Prime Minister. Blair (like Clinton) dragged his party to the centre, playing down class differences. For all his trial lawyer fortune, Edwards has built his campaign around such differences, presenting himself as the champion of the little man. When he goes after George W Bush as the pawn of big business and special interests, he is hitting the President where it hurts.

If Edwards is the nominee, he could be an even more dangerous proposition. James Carville, the celebrated Democratic consultant, describes him as the most skilful and persuasive debater he's ever come across - no mean compliment from the man who helped to guide Clinton, the most gifted politician of his era, to the White House. If Edwards gets the nomination, Carville predicts that Bush will simply refuse to debate him. Lauch Faircloth, the Republican incumbent Edwards defeated in 1998, also tried that tactic. He still lost.

Edwards needs a victory in South Carolina. You don't win by coming an eternal second. But what he really needs is a sharp acceleration of the ageing process. And just maybe, the grind of the campaign, the 18-hour days, the snatched meals, the endless talking and the frantic travelling are starting to do the trick. Suddenly, he looks older. Who knows, if that hair acquires a fleck of grey, America might discover not just a smart and charming lawyer, but a future commander-in-chief as well.

LIFE STORY

Born

10 June 1953, Seneca, South Carolina. Grew up in Robbins, a small town in the North Carolina upcountry. Wallace Edwards, his father, worked in textile mills for 36 years. His mother held various jobs, including working at the post office.

Family

Married Mary Elizabeth Anania (pictured), a fellow student at law school, in 1977. Their first child, Wade, died in 1996. Their eldest daughter, Catharine, is a student at Princeton University. They have a daughter, Emma Claire, 5, and a 3-year-old-son, Jack.

Education

The first person in his family to go to university, he attended North Carolina State University, graduating with a degree in textiles in 1974. He obtained a law degree in 1977 from the University of North Carolina.

Career

Practised law 1977-1998. Elected Senator for North Carolina Nov 1998.

"A lot of people will look at me as a candidate for President and think: 'You know, this is what America is about - this guy has pulled himself up and gotten to this place and he understands me.' "

They say

"People should look at this boyish face and understand that there's an old man in there, there's an experienced human being who knows that life isn't perfect." - former US Senator Bob Kerrey

"Johnny was pretty close to being a redneck. He had that down-to-earth attitude. That is what all the guys enjoyed about him. There is still no pretention about him." - Phil Boone, North Carolina judge and old friend from law school

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