First-Term Senator Auditions for Presidency With Education Speech

As Democrats search for a winning message, North Carolina Democratic Sen. John Edwards fancies himself the new messenger, casting himself as the face of change, as he weighs a presidential bid in 2004.

"I think it's important for us as Democrats not to be so tied to the past and history that we forget about thinking about new ideas," Edwards told an audience Thursday at the University of Maryland.

He may advertise new ideas, but when it comes to a potential White House run, he repeats a line delivered pretty much by all the prospective Democratic candidates.

"My plan is to make a decision sometime between now and beginning of next year," he said.

Critics say the first-term senator with boyish good looks is not ready for prime time, but he's a media darling and has delivered a stream of policy speeches taking on the White House.

Thursday's focused on education.

"President Bush walked away from education reform," Edwards charged. "We have raised standards without offering teachers and principals the resources to meet those standards. We used to call this an unfunded mandate. I call it unfair, unwise and unacceptable.''

Edwards proposed having the federal government pay for the college education of teachers who commit to teaching for five years in communities where it is tougher to get a good education. He also suggested a $5,000 mortgage tax credit to teachers willing to buy homes in poor neighborhoods near their schools.

Edwards said the federal government should double the $3 billion a year it gives states to help put quality teachers in classrooms.

He also proposed giving one year of college tuition to students who agree to commit to at least 10 hours a week to work study, community service or a part-time job during the remainder of their school year.

"Providing a free year of college tuition will eliminate the sticker shock that scares off so many kids,'' Edwards said. "After students get through that first year, which is the toughest, they'll know financial aid is available, they'll know student loans are an investment worth making and they'll have access to people who can help them pursue both.''

But even if Edwards' proposals make him sound presidential, the race is effectively frozen for him and others who've been organizing, fund raising and visiting key campaign states — like Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman — until former Vice President Al Gore decides whether he's going to run again.

After a string of appearances to promote two new books, Gore said he plans to announce his decision sometime after hosting late-night variety show Saturday Night Live in mid-December.

While many Democrats discourage — and some even fear a second Gore campaign — few doubt his fund-raising ability, and some even call the nomination his for the taking. With each new interview, Gore goes after Bush a bit harder.

Sounding much like the rematch is already underway, Gore blasted Bush war policy in The Washington Post on Thursday.

"During the two months prior to the election, the president, instead of directing the war against terror, crisscrossed the nation campaigning against Saddam Hussein," he said. "Now Usama's back and we've lost a considerable amount of valuable time and effort. They've [the Republicans] won both houses of Congress, but the country has lost."

If Gore runs, Lieberman has said he will not. But several other Democrats have made no such commitment.

Howard Dean, outgoing governor of Vermont, has already filed exploratory papers and has traveled the country more than any other candidate, but he remains a virtual unknown nationwide.

A better-known but arguably longer shot is the Rev. Al Sharpton.

And there are other heavyweights: Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who Fox News has learned made over 200 phone calls to fund-raisers and potential backers within just three days of announcing that he would give up his role as House Democratic leader in response to this year's House losses. Aides say Gephardt is almost certainly running, although they also said that in 2000, and he didn't.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry — who has been the most candid about his desire to get in the race — is said to be considering whether or not to do it and whether to tap into his wife's ketchup heiress fortune to do it.

Sen. Democratic leader Tom Daschle repeats that he will make a decision during the early part of next year, but analysts say he is the least likely to go for it.

Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.