Edwards Sticks to Populist Message

John Edwards (search), who has vowed to stay positive, is sticking to his policy-laden populist message as tries to gain ground on front-runner John Kerry (search), while carefully beating back attacks from Wesley Clark (search).

With Kerry surging, traditional politics suggest that it may be time for Edwards to try to curb the front-runner's momentum by attacking him. But Edwards insists that he won't do that.

"I'm not going to change my message. My message has been working and continues to work," Edwards said Sunday while campaigning here. "We're going into March with voters having a clear choice between two candidates. Senator Kerry and I offer very different choices for the voters."

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Edwards said he will talk about "the things that make me different."

He argues that his message is resonating, even though he has won only won one state to Kerry's nine.

At each campaign stop, Edwards bounds on stage, pumps his fists in the air and grins. He claims there are "two Americas" -- one for the rich, one for every one else. He rails against President Bush's policies on trade and vows to help working-class Americans. And, he promises to fight for children in poverty and close what he calls America's racial divide.

Some, like Amanda Beeler, a 24-year-old University of Memphis student, are hooked. She came to an Edwards rally knowing little about the candidate and left impressed.

"I find it childish when grown men attack each other. Why can they just stand up and talk about what they stand for? He just stood up and did that. I like what I've seen," she said grinning.

The question is whether Edwards can convince enough such voters for him to overtake Kerry without working to slow the Massachusetts senator's momentum.

Polls show Edwards and Clark in a tight race for second place behind Kerry in Tennessee and Virginia, which hold primaries Tuesday. Edwards' advisers concede Kerry probably will win both states. The campaign's immediate goal Tuesday is to knock Clark out of the race, and head to Wisconsin on Feb. 17 as Kerry's main competitor. Edwards also is looking toward Super Tuesday on March 2, and has added staff in New York, California, Georgia, Maryland and Ohio within the past week.

Kerry's candidacy appears to grow stronger each day. On Sunday, he picked up the endorsement of Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, and is expected to get the backing of a large alliance of unions that once backed fallen candidate Dick Gephardt.

Edwards spent the morning in Richmond, Va., traveling to three Baptist churches, courting blacks. As Edwards sat in a pew at one church waiting to speak, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald, D-Calif., talked to the congregation about the only candidate who she says can beat Bush -- Kerry.

Taking the stage, Edwards said: "I give you a different choice on Tuesday, someone from your sister state of North Carolina."

Analysts say Edwards' only option is to keep reaching out to voters and hope for a little luck. They say it would be fatal for him to go on the attack.

"To do so would be to invalidate his candidacy," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "He has to hope that lightening strikes and Kerry stumbles."

So, Edwards points out differences between himself and his rivals discreetly.

He talks about trade and job losses, and claims that the North American Free Trade Agreement eliminated 96,000 jobs in Tennessee and 66,000 in Virginia, and is bad for America. He doesn't mention Kerry's name or the Massachusetts senator's vote for NAFTA, but it's clear the trade talk is meant to draw a distinction.

He wouldn't bite when asked at a union rally Saturday in Wisconsin about whether he would make a better president than Kerry on the issue of trade alone. Instead, he gave reporters a disciplined response: "I'd be a president who understands the plight of working people and all of those who lost their jobs, and I will stand up for them."

If he's attacked, Edwards usually dismisses it as "petty sniping" and is careful with his words when he does respond.

It took him several days to defend himself after Clark started criticizing him for his Senate votes. The last straw was Clark accusing Edwards of turning his back on veterans. Edwards said Clark was mischaracterizing his votes, and issued a statement warning voters to expect more "baseless, false attacks."

On Sunday, when Clark criticized his tax plan, Edwards responded in typical fashion, saying: "He's wrong" and then proceeded to outline his proposal.