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Edwards's Record as A Freshman Senator

Lawmaker Labored on Issues Such as Health Care, Intelligence and Trade

By Charles Babington and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 29, 2004; Page A04

John Edwards came to the Senate five years ago with a gold-plated record as a trial lawyer but zero experience in elected office. Fate immediately blessed him, however, as the Senate turned to two issues perfectly tailored to his legal background: a president's impeachment and proposals to help Americans fight back when managed-care companies deny them health insurance benefits.

The North Carolina Democrat dived in energetically, quickly making a name for himself and building credibility for his soon-to-follow presidential bid -- even if many voters still question his depth of experience.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) jokes with supporters, including ex-basketball star Charles Barkley, right rear, at a rally Saturday in Atlanta. (John Bazemore -- AP)

Now, trying to wrest the nomination from Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), Edwards must battle the perception that his congressional record is thin for someone seeking the nation's highest office. A review of his record shows that, like other first-term lawmakers, Edwards has little in the way of concrete legislative achievements, but he gained attention on issues ranging from health care to intelligence to environmental protection.

While aspiring to build a national profile, Edwards also labored on issues important to his home state, such as proposing amendments to help textile workers who were losing their jobs to lower-wage workers in other nations. In recent weeks, he increasingly has raised trade issues in trying to differentiate himself from Kerry.

As a senator, Edwards scored minor victories on behalf of the textile industry, but he also voted for liberalized trade with China and for presidential "fast track" negotiating authority, complicating his efforts to draw bright-line distinctions between his record and Kerry's.

Focusing largely on patients' rights from the start, Edwards sought to establish himself as a centrist Democratic senator -- more liberal than southern colleagues Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), but similar in many respects to Bob Graham (D-Fla.) and former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.). He voted to support abortion rights, authorize the war in Iraq, require criminal background checks on buyers at gun shows, block the confirmation of some of President Bush's most conservative judicial nominees, and prohibit oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

When the National Journal analyzed dozens of key votes over several years to rate the early Democratic presidential contenders, it ranked Edwards as more conservative than Kerry and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), and more liberal than Graham and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.). A more recent Journal survey of votes cast in 2003 rated Kerry as the Senate's most liberal member, and Edwards the fourth most liberal.

While often critical of Bush administration policies, Edwards generally eschews sharply partisan rhetoric, a strategy that has won admirers in both parties. "He's certainly well liked, and from what I've seen he's got a very good analytical mind," Sen Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) said.

Shortly after Edwards was sworn in, Senate leaders chose him as one of six members to preside over witness depositions in the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton. Edwards earned praise for his questioning skills and for a speech he delivered to colleagues in a closed-door debate on the impeachment charges.

"I have been sitting, listening to my fellow senators speak, and I want to speak to you from the heart," he began, discarding a prepared text in favor of the folksy, informal style he had perfected with North Carolina juries. One by one, he analyzed the charges against Clinton, finding that none justified the Democratic president's removal from office. "However reprehensible the president's conduct is, I have to vote to acquit," he said.

When Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) rose later to give his views, he disagreed with Edwards's conclusions but described his statement as "brilliant."

But it was the patients' bill of rights, which Edwards had championed in his 1998 Senate campaign, that proved to be his biggest accomplishment -- and disappointment.

After Democrats took control of the Senate in mid-2001, they made patients' rights their first priority, and then-Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) tapped Edwards to join Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) as chief sponsors of the bill.

The key issue was the extent to which injured patients could sue their managed-care health plans for damages, a familiar topic for Edwards.

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