By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
MARKS, Miss., July 16 -- From the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans to the Mississippi Delta to this town where Martin Luther King Jr. began his Poor People's Campaign almost four decades ago, John Edwards's message has been the same: Americans living in poverty are working hard but need more help from the federal government and their wealthier countrymen.
"A lot of Americans think of people who are struggling as people who don't want to work, and that's nonsense. We need to make sure the country understands that," the Democratic former senator from North Carolina said.
On the second day of an eight-state tour of impoverished communities in the South and Midwest, Edwards tried to connect his presidential campaign with the legacy of King and Robert F. Kennedy and the issue they tried to publicize in the 1960s: poverty. The four-day tour will end in Prestonsburg, Ky., where Kennedy concluded a tour of Appalachia in 1968.
After meeting with a group of poultry workers in Canton, Miss., on the way here, Edwards urged reporters to "please stay focused on the stories we heard" from the workers, rather than the candidate. But for Edwards, the trip represents an attempt to change the focus of Democratic primary voters.
Trailing his two main rivals, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in fundraising and in most polls, Edwards has been unable to make much headway in part because of a series of controversies that cast doubt on the image he has cultivated as a millionaire lawyer who as the son of a millworker understands the plight of those with less than he has.
First there was publicity about the 28,000-square-foot mansion in North Carolina he was building, then the disclosure that he had charged a pair of $400 haircuts to his campaign, then the further disclosure that the hedge fund he worked for after the 2004 election employed the kind of overseas tax shelters he has deplored on the campaign trail.
"Voters vote mainly on who the person is. He's trying to communicate a message about who he is, a person who does not forget where he comes from," said Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster who is not working for any of the party's 2008 hopefuls. "The haircut issue is significant in that context; it cuts against the story."
At its headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C., the Edwards campaign has undergone a retooling in hopes of getting past these controversies. Joe Trippi, credited with both the dramatic rise and fall of former Vermont governor Howard Dean's 2004 presidential run, is taking an increasingly influential role, and one of his proteges, former Dean political director Paul Blank, this week started running the day-to-day operations of the campaign as its deputy manager.
On the road, Edwards said nothing about those developments, focusing instead on what he calls "the great moral issue of our time." But the 37 million Americans in families that make less than $20,000 a year, the federal definition of poverty, are not the kind of group that can push Edwards to victory. Poor people vote at lower percentages than their wealthier counterparts, by definition don't have much money to give to candidates and aren't an organized political constituency like the elderly.
"He undoubtedly knows it's an issue without a real constituency that votes," said Matt Bennett, a Democratic strategist and co-founder of a party think tank called Third Way. "It's brave and bold, or brave and foolhardy."
Democrats such as Robert Kennedy and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have demanded that the country do more to help the poor, but after the 1992 campaign, when Bill Clinton directed much of his attention to what he termed "the forgotten middle class," the party has largely avoided making explicit political appeals to the poor.
Middle-class voters may care about poverty, but they list education, health care and the economy as their most important priorities. Edwards dismisses this argument, telling a group at a small meeting at a charter school in New Orleans that "I think the country cares."
"We just need someone to tap into that," he said.
The Edwards campaign hopes that Democrats focused on the Iraq war or other issues who don't care that much about poverty will like someone who does. "I think it gives people an insight into the kind of person he is," said Harrison Hickman, Edwards's pollster.
Most of the ideas Edwards is offering to end poverty, such as increasing the minimum wage and integrating neighborhoods so they don't have large concentrations of low-income people, have long been advocated by policy experts, who have been unable to build a strong political consensus behind them.
Edwards said Monday that ending poverty could not be accomplished only by "big government taking care of people," and he visited a restaurant in New Orleans that gives jobs to at-risk youths and a community center, emphasizing his support of innovative solutions for improving poor communities. At the same time, both in New Orleans and in Canton, the federal government was blamed for almost every problem.
While he has emphasized poverty from the time he announced his candidacy in December, he cannot completely claim the issue. Obama, who touts his work as a community organizer in low-income neighborhoods of Chicago before entering politics, will give a speech on urban poverty in Washington on Wednesday. Clinton already delivered a major address detailing how she would seek to reduce income inequality.
"If Edwards falters, it's not a repudiation of themes," said Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale University who advised Edwards on his health-care proposal. "It's a much more populist Democrat field than it was last time. He's not as clearly distinguishable as he was from Democrats in the past."
Despite those complexities, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, seemed determined to change Americans' minds about the issue, at times sounding more like a public service announcement than a presidential campaign.
"When you say 37 million people who live in poverty, it's just a number," Elizabeth Edwards said. "It's too big a number. Part of this tour is to tell a story. This tour has the capacity, as Katrina did, to put a face on the working poor."