WASHINGTON (AP) - The campaign of presidential hopeful John
Edwards has a ready answer for all the criticism about his
expensive haircuts and expansive home: A man can be wealthy and
care about the poor, too.
Just look at a Democratic hero - Robert F. Kennedy.
Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, plans to spend
three days next week on a poverty tour reminiscent of Kennedy's
1968 trip. Edwards even plans to end his journey where Kennedy did
some 40 years ago, in Prestonsburg, Ky.
The eight-state tour shifts the spotlight to an issue that has
been the focus of Edwards' campaign since his first run for the
White House four years ago. In recent weeks, publicity about his
personal wealth - $400 haircuts, construction of a
28,000-square-foot house, hundreds of thousands of dollars in
salary to speak about poverty and advise a hedge fund for the
superrich - has opened him to charges of hypocrisy and threatened
to undermine his message.
"The last thing you want to do is become the Elmer Gantry of
the 2008 election cycle," said former Rep. David Nagle, D-Iowa,
referring to the fraudulent preacher depicted in Sinclair Lewis'
novel. "His opponents are trying to paint him as Elmer Gantry, and
some of that paint is hanging on the canvas."
Edwards' advisers argue that hair cuts and square footage
shouldn't undermine his candidacy when the nation has far greater
concerns such as the Iraq war, nearly 44 million uninsured and 37
million living in poverty. They note that nearly all the leading
candidates running for president in 2008 are wealthy, as well as
those in the past who have championed poverty.
"I think voters understand that whether it was Franklin
Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Bobby Kennedy, there's been a lot of
people interested in issues that don't fit their own financial
situation," said Edwards pollster Harrison Hickman.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of
New Hampshire, said the perception of hypocrisy has become a
problem for Edwards, fair or not, but he doesn't think it is
"I think it's something he has to live with now," Scala said.
"You try to make light of it, which I think he did. You try to
change the subject as gracefully as possible."
Edwards isn't changing the subject as much as he is taking it
head on. When the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing Wednesday
to discuss how hedge fund managers avoid paying taxes on much of
their compensation, Edwards embraced it as a chance to decry the
abuse of the tax code even though he has, in the past, provided
consulting services for some of those managers.
Edwards advisers say they fully expect the poverty tour will
revive more questions about his finances verses his message and he
is prepared to answer them.
He frequently talks about how he was born into a working-class
family and has been able to live the American dream. But the tour
is an attempt to show that the debate shouldn't be about him but
about one in eight Americans living in poverty.
"Let them attack," Edwards said in a letter to supporters,
asking for symbolic $8 campaign donations to support his effort.
"We know what's right. And we will keep fighting to end the
national disgrace of 37 million Americans living in poverty."
Taking the trip also is a risk since it is a significant detour
from campaigning in early states and raising money. But his
campaign hopes the tour will provide visuals of the candidate
addressing concerns of the poor that will stick throughout the
Edwards' tour was to begin Sunday night in New Orleans' Lower
Ninth Ward, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. Then he planned
to travel to Marks, Miss., where Martin Luther King Jr. launched
his 1968 Poor People's March to Washington.
Other scheduled stops were in West Helena, Ark.; Memphis;
Cleveland; Youngstown, Ohio; and Pittsburgh. He planned to visit a
remote health care clinic in Wise, Va.; talk about economic
opportunity for young people growing up in Whitesburg, Ky.; then
give a speech Wednesday at the Floyd County Courthouse in Kentucky
where Kennedy spoke.
On the Net:
Edwards campaign Web site: http://www.johnedwards.com
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)