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The Front-Runners: John Edwards

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Sue Anne Pressley Montes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007; 12:00 PM

"To see John Edwards at work in New Hampshire, where he came in an embarrassing fourth among Democrats in 2004, is to see his father's son in action, determined to overcome some pretty long odds. ... Maybe something in him relishes being the underdog. But Edwards acknowledges that other forces also propel him. 'I thought everybody was smarter than me when I went to college,' he says. 'And I thought everybody was smarter than me when I walked into a courtroom, and I thought everybody was smarter than me when I went to the Senate.' Like his father before him -- who, near the end of his career, finally became a supervisor at the mill -- he would just work harder to prove himself."

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Washington Post writer Sue Anne Pressley Montes was online Monday, Dec. 11 at noon ET to discuss her article exploring John Edwards, his relationship with his father, and his campaign for the presidency.

The transcript follows.

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Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Hello, and thanks for joining us today to talk about John Edwards and the early influences in his life

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Olney, Md.: While I didn't think the other pieces of the feature were very positive or flattering, I did enjoy reading the main piece about John Edwards's life story, growing up, especially the section about his dad and his influence on him. Given how the two front-runners are jabbing and sniping constantly at each other, using everyone from Oprah to Bill Clinton in their respective assaults, do you think John Edwards can capitalize on that division and somehow sneak a first- or second-place finish in any or all of the first three or four primaries?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: I think it is clear that anything can happen, but John Edwards is known for nothing if not for his tenacity. As his mother says, "Don't underestimate Johnny." But I think it is clear he has to overcome what some see as an image problem.

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Louisville, KY: Why is it that the majority of the media seem to cover only Clinton and Obama, as though they (the media) already have decided that one of them will be the nominee, to the exclusion of somebody like John Edwards, who really "gets it" as far as poverty and classism goes, and is the candidate who most exemplifies the American Dream incarnate?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Thanks for your comment. It's an interesting question, and one that I'm sure troubles the Edwards campaign. But I think the answer is that in all of the polls, he places no better than third. We certainly have made no conclusions about who is going to win this thing--we simply are going by the indicators we have so far.

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Columbus, Ohio: Will today's news (release of a positive poll results by CNN) prompt a significant rise in the poll numbers in Iowa? If Edwards does well in Iowa, will the rest of the country take notice and begin to look at him as a true contender?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: It will be very interesting to see what happens in Iowa, where, I believe Edwards placed second in 2004. It is an area, obviously, where his populist message goes over well, and I can tell you from observing Edwards that he is best in person, in small groups. That has been his strategy in Iowa--also trotting out Mom and Dad, who are very popular there!

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Columbus, Ohio: I heard about several stories regarding integration at John's high school; do you have any insight on how he reacted to this change?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: From my limited reporting on this subject, I understand that he attended schools that had only been integrated a few years, and counted among his friends many of the African-American players on the football team. North Moore High School was not a hotbed of activism, but when some of the African-American students staged a sit-in to protest discrimination, he was not a leader of the effort, but joined in spontaneously on the school lawn.

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Richmond, Va.: With the other candidates pulling in the big celebrities, I think all Edwards would need to do is a little political jujitsu and just bring an average guy on stage who supports him and say this is the support that matters to him ... just the average American. Would fit into the image he's trying to build, don't you think?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Yes, and he has done that to a certain extent. One of the people he mentions often is a Virginia resident named James Lowe, who lived most of his life with a cleft palate and didn't have the money or health coverage to fix the problem. After Lowe did receive treatment, and was able to speak clearly, Edwards said he was most impressed with Lowe's attitude about the whole thing. "Instead of being angry about it, or sad, or like he was entitled to it, he was just grateful that somebody finally fixed it for him," Edwards said. But perhaps the problem is that Edwards has mentioned the Lowe story so often that Lowe no longer seems quite real.

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Poplar Bluff, Mo.: People have made fun of Edwards's $600 hair cuts and big house. I really enjoyed today's article about his humble beginnings. Has being financially successful become a negative now in American society for some people?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: That's an interesting question. As Edwards himself said, "If I hadn't been successful, would that make me better qualified to be president?" I think it is a frustration for Edwards that he does not get full credit for the truth about where he came from and how hard he has worked.

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Seattle: I really enjoyed the article. Compared to others in the race, especially Romney, I love the fact that Edwards is embracing his life's story and trying to run a no-holds-barred progressive campaign.

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Well, some have criticized him for embracing his life story a little too much. But Edwards is certainly running true to form--and a more dogged and determined candidate would be hard to find.

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Birmingham, Ala.: Does the Edwards campaign survive until Super-Duper Tuesday if he comes in second to Obama or Clinton in Iowa (and finishes no better than second in any of the other early primaries)?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: I have nothing to go on here but my sense of his determination, but I don't see Edwards as an early dropout.

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Pasadena, Calif.: I always have liked John Edwards. I voted for him in the 2004 primary, when I lived in Virginia. I have seen him speak in Pasadena. How is it that the press is ignoring him? A lot of the buzz about the other candidates is made by the press, and then people begin to believe it and the polls follow. What is going on?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Well, I don't think the Post is ignoring him, but I get your point--he does often seem to be the forgotten man in this race. But there is certainly no media conspiracy to keep him down. I do think he has some sort of problem in convincing people that all of the truly authentic things about him are real.

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Seattle: Comment to The Post: Your photo selection and commentary could not be more biased. Compare the Edward's photo on the Web to that running for previous candidates. You have to search far and wide to find a worse photo of Edwards. Congratulations of finding a photo to fit your purpose. And it is oh so "tort reform." And the glib description which says in so many words "we think he is a phony" because he dresses well and has made money but talks about poverty. Could you maybe -- just maybe -- focus on substance, and give him equal footing? You are the Prell team. Oh so witty and beautiful.

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Thanks for your comment.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Dana Milbank's piece focuses on the "stump speech" without discussing his health care, energy and environment, foreclosure or tax proposals, all of which are the most substantive of any of the candidates. Hillary's health care program copies Edwards. His growth as an individual is astounding. Opposing changing one of side of "K" street for another apparently is too strident for some, yet critical to changing the perception that many Americans have about "their" government. Should he have made these points while retaining the "I'm going to be positive only," as he did in 2004 when he was far less substantive? Or has it been the lavish personal lifestyle, the $400 haircut, working for a hedge fund that has kept him in third place?

washingtonpost.com: No More Mr. Nice Guy (Post, Dec. 11)

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: I don't know if those personal trappings have kept him in third place, but all of the talk about them has certainly distracted from Edwards' message. Everywhere he goes, he hands out that 76-page booklet that lists his positions on everything--and coincidentally informs the audience that he was "the first" of the candidates to draw up a plan for this or that. He has obviously made a decision to be more the scruffy underdog fighter this time--but the haircuts and hedge funds apparently keep getting in the way.

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Columbus, Ohio: After reading the positive statements from those participating today, it is hard to imagine that Edwards will do poorly in New Hampshire this time around. ... Why do you think his message does not resonate with New Hampshire voters?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: I'm not sure it isn't resonating to a degree. One thing he has done, which is typical of him, is to get out there and work harder and appear more often and see more people and hand out more of his booklets than he even did last time. I spent a brief time with him in New Hampshire and found people very receptive to him--in person, he comes across more charming and accessible. Those I talked to said, to a person, that they admired his hard work, but then they would say something like, "But he's a trial lawyer, and that comes through." Or, "He's got to overcome that pretty-boy image." It will be interesting to see how he does there.

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Boston: I actually liked the photo. It is the ugliest one I've ever seen of him and it doesn't look like he does in person. But it gives him the look of someone who has been through a lot (which he has).

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: You're right. He has been through a great deal in his personal life, with his teenaged son's death and his wife's illness. And I think that is where accusations that he is "shallow" do not wash.

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Greenbelt, Md.: Why are so many people so obsessed about his personal wealth? While RFK is a hero of Edwards's, I had forgotten the negative perception that Bobby Kennedy received for being a "do-gooder." After all, how can someone who is wealthy truly be concerned for those who are ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-educated?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: It is curious that Edwards seems to come in for so much slamming for his wealth, when there are other candidates with money. Maybe it is because there is such a large chasm between how he grew up and how he lives now. But I do think he is sincere when he says, you can never forget where you came from. At a photo op at a food pantry in New Hampshire, he passed out apples and oranges to the people in the line, and said later that he was thinking about how these were good decent hard-working people with pride who were going through hard times. I think he relates what he sees to his memories of growing up--but a lot of people, apparently, don't seem to buy it.

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Edwards's Money: His giant house only has attracted attention because he claims to be "looking out for the little guy." I'd bet Romney has more money, and Clinton will soon, but they don't claim to be proletarian. Being a hypocrite matters too.

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: All I can say is, he says he and his family have been "blessed." There is no question he came from a working-class environment.

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Washington: Were you aware that your article on Edwards was going to be run the same day as Givhan's nasty little piece on him in the "Style" section? I guess this question really isn't about Edwards, but more about how things work behind the scenes at The Post...

washingtonpost.com: Robin is writing pieces on each candidate as part of the series. Clinton, Romney, Edwards.

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Yes, we were aware that there would be a variety of small articles accompanying the big piece, and I am happy that fashion writer Robin Givhan lent her expertise and insights to the big picture.

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Ohio: Mr. Edwards comes across as more presidential than most of the candidates; he certainly would be a better person to address concerns of other countries than what we have in the White House at this time. I don't care what he pays for haircuts or suits -- he is a professional, he could hardly go to a Thrift store for his suits or have his wife cut his hair. He would catch it from the media for that, too. I like Mr. Edwards, but it remains to be seen if he can make it to nomination. I wish him the best of luck and reward for his work.

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Thanks for your comment.

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Boston: I am a big admirer and supporter of Sen. Edwards and a political junkie who regularly travels the 40 miles north to get to know each of the candidates. In the past two election cycles, Edwards has been the strongest in conviction and charisma (by far in 2004 and just slightly this year). I don't get why he doesn't catch with broader swaths of the electorate (I don't say this in a partisan way, I got W from my meetings with him in 1999/2000). Also, his press coverage always seems to have a slightly negative tint that I have read comes from a general disdain towards him from reporters. What gives?

Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Well, I think we apply a critical eye to all of the candidates. I do not think anyone is trying to isolate Edwards. But that does get at what I see as a basic issue with his campaign--getting people to see him the way he wants to be seen.

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Sue Anne Pressley Montes: Thank you so much for joining us today.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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