WASHINGTON – Sen. John Edwards (search) kicked off a weeklong birthday bash this weekend with a series of activities that aim to enhance the "golden boy" persona that first accompanied his announcement that he is running for president.
"I am going to take this fight right at President Bush, and when American people understand they have a real choice, a real alternative in 2004, there will be a new president and that president will be John Edwards," Edwards said Saturday at a birthday and campaign event in his home state of North Carolina. He turns 50 on Tuesday.
On the trail, the good-looking, youthful Edwards has a Clinton-like energy that voters love. He fancies himself the Democrat that the Bush White House fears most, in many ways a model candidate.
A Newsweek cover boy last year and top fund-raiser in the first quarter of this year, conventional wisdom would have people thinking that the first-term senator is doing well in his bid to be the next Democratic presidential nominee, but so far expectations have outpaced performance.
In the crucial early primary and caucus states, he has yet to catch on with the electorate. Polls put him fifth out of nine in Iowa, fifth in New Hampshire and fourth in South Carolina, next door to his home state.
Nationwide, Edwards remains largely unknown. In the latest Fox News-Opinion Dynamics poll, 70 percent say they can't form an opinion of him. Seventeen percent view him favorably and 13 percent do not.
To his advantage, seven months remain before the first votes, and Edwards is ready to go, having fully outfitted his campaign with the message, money and organization needed to launch a serious challenge.
He raised $7.4 million dollars in the first three months of 2003, more than any of his rivals. His campaign staff is spread over 10 states and they are hiring.
As for his message, it's pure populism and he casts himself as the embodiment of it — a southerner from a small-town, working-class family.
"The values I learned, I learned growing up in Robins, North Carolina, with my mom and dad who are standing beside me right now," he said at a stop this weekend.
He constantly pledges to assail the powerful and to stand up for the little guy, particularly in rural America, where Democrats are looking to recruit new voters. Democrats say the "rural strategy" will fit well with his humble roots.
"Their cause is my cause. It has been the cause of my entire life," he said.
But part of that life includes having become a nationally-recognized and very powerful trial lawyer, not the most popular profession in America.
Others say they can't figure out where he is running from, sometimes lambasting President Bush, other times clearly supporting the president's positions, for instance, by voting for war in Iraq.
Last week, Edwards praised Bush for his strong response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but he also criticized the president because Bush "has not maintained it, he's diverted from the path."
But having moved to Washington five years ago to become a U.S. senator prominent in several key legislative battles, some are concerned that his image has turned to one of millionaire insider.
Edwards is up for Senate re-election next year and has not taken himself out of the running to focus on the White House. To some, that says even Edwards has doubts. Some say they believe he is running in 2004 as practice for another try later in his career.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.