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Delegates With a Broken Pledge
The Misery and Mercy of John Edwards's Former Supporters

By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

DENVER, Aug. 27 -- Think the Hillary Clinton delegates feel miserable and dejected? Spend a moment with Deb Nelson.

The high school English teacher from New Hampshire arrived here this week with a scarlet "E" on her chest. That's E for Edwards. She is one of the 26 delegates former North Carolina senator John Edwards collected on the path to ultimate primary defeat in South Carolina and personal destruction in the pages of the National Enquirer.

Nelson, 54, like the rest of the Edwards delegates, will support Sen. Barack Obama. Unlike Clinton delegates, many of whom have parted wistfully, or even grudgingly, from their first-choice candidate, Nelson is more than ready to kick Edwards to the curb. How did she feel when Edwards confessed he had been cheating on wife Elizabeth, with whom Nelson shared chicken salad sandwiches in her kitchen in Hanover?

"I'm sure you can imagine," Nelson said, pain on her face as she shook her head while standing on the Democratic convention floor. "I was . . . words really don't . . . terrible. Terrible. Aghast."

The bitter taste of betrayal is widespread in this group. Sharon Nordgren, a New Hampshire state representative, was, until the admission, a die-hard Edwards supporter. Nordgren, 64, said she was stunned to learn that while she and others were cheering him on, Edwards was stumping around her state with his paramour, Rielle Hunter, a woman he met in a bar and hired to do biographical videos for him. Confronting this unsavory image again, she made a face that looked as if she smelled something rotten.

How did Nordgren react to the news of Edwards's affair? "Not printable," she said.

Despite his high-profile second try for the White House, Edwards is one party headliner not at the Democratic National Convention. If his name is raised at all, it is in whispers.

His delegates are one of the more underground subgroups here; for them, the tawdry Edwards affair is much more than titillating gossip. As they reflected on the candidate whose campaign led them to the floor of the Pepsi Center here, they kept returning to two main topics.

First: Elizabeth and the couple's three children. "I feel so terrible for them," Nordgren said.

Second: A wrenching sense of lost opportunity.

Kate Michelman, the longtime warrior for abortion rights who took flak from her political sisters when she broke from the pack and backed Edwards for president, said she saw in him a man who understood "the next leg of the journey for women had to be focused on economic security."

Michelman, speaking by phone from her living room, with the sounds of convention speeches coming from the television, said she thought long and hard before getting behind Edwards, instead of joining Sen. Hillary Clinton's bid to become the first woman president.

"I will say, it was a major political decision for me. It was a very important one. One of the most important I made in my political career," she said.

When the campaign ended badly, she says, she called Edwards to buck him up. She reminded him of the post-campaign accomplishments of Al Gore, and told Edwards he should consider carrying the message of economic inequity and injustice around the globe.

"For the millions of women who remain marginalized by economic forces, who have not been advantaged by the progress of the women's movement, for those women, I felt John Edwards represented the greatest hope for their lives and their families' lives," Michelman said. "That is what is just so devastating about this."

Speaking publicly about her feelings for the first time, Michelman said she feels a sense of solidarity with the delegates at the convention, the donors who sent money and the volunteers who toiled on Edwards's behalf.

"The reality of the betrayal, the sadness -- it all etches so sharply," she said.

Not everyone among the delegates, though, is overcome with such raw emotion. Robert Groce, 40, of Summerville, S.C., said he still supports Edwards -- proudly and defiantly -- even though he understands his candidate's political career is almost certainly finished.

Groce fled New Orleans when Katrina's floods hit and he was forced to move away. He had landed in Summerville when he saw Edwards launch his campaign from New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward.

"That touched me very much," Groce said.

The Edwards campaign was steaming into the Iowa caucuses when the Enquirer first alleged that the former trial lawyer had a mistress who had become pregnant. Groce got a call from a reporter for the Charlotte Observer who had " a question about, and I'm quoting here, a 'love baby.' " He dismissed the allegation at the time and allowed the truth of Edwards's predicament to sink in only when he watched the former senator confess the affair on ABC's "Nightline."

Groce was "disappointed" in Edwards. "But I was more disappointed that the media forced his wife and family to live through that pain all over again."

Groce now believes Edwards lied about the affair only because he had to. "Not to cover himself," he said. "He was lying to keep it personal."

Merci Wolff, who began volunteering for Edwards in Iowa in 2004 when she was just 14, said she was missing her college freshman orientation to attend the convention as an Edwards delegate. She said the moment she fell for the candidate came after a computer factory closed in Sioux City, where she was growing up.

"John Edwards came two weeks after the news broke, and he met with the workers," she recalled. "He had answers. He had come from the working class. He knew what they were talking about."

Wolff said she also dismissed the initial reports as, in Edwards's words, "tabloid trash." She believed him until the tabloid reported that its reporters had cornered Edwards at a Los Angeles hotel, where it alleged he was visiting Hunter's baby.

Wolff said she was glad Edwards appeared on television to accept responsibility for the affair (though he continued to deny fathering Hunter's child).

True to her name, Merci Wolff says she has forgiven Edwards. "It takes a good man to step up and tell the truth," she said. "He admitted he was wrong."

According to news accounts, Edwards has been calling his close friends and supporters, apologizing for all that has transpired. But these delegates said they have not received a call, and don't believe one is warranted.

"He does not owe me a call," Nelson said. But that does not mean she's ready to let go of her feelings about what he did.

"I think he will remain an incredible public servant because of all the policies he supported and the ideas he had," she said. "But it will be a very long time before people are ready to listen to him again -- a very long time before they forgive him."

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