WASHINGTON – While John Edwards (search) comes across as articulate and folksy, his lack of political and foreign policy experience could become a liability in the homestretch for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But the North Carolina senator's supporters say he's been underestimated before, and that he has a way of connecting with audiences, particularly with his stump message about the "two Americas" for the rich and for everybody else.
A self-made millionaire trial lawyer who projects the image of a common man, Edwards has flown mostly under the political radar as most attention focused first on Howard Dean (search) and then on John Kerry.
But now that the Democratic contest is essentially the two-man race long sought by Edwards, his record and background are sure to come under closer scrutiny.
His detractors argue that he has not done much to define himself beyond an effective but unchanging stump speech, and has sometimes appeared awkward on interview shows and in debates.
Edwards says he won't take money from Washington lobbyists or special-interest groups, but many of his early contributions came from fellow trial lawyers.
After his strong second-place finish Tuesday in Wisconsin's primary, Edwards set his sights on the 10 "Super Tuesday" races March 2 that include delegate-rich California, New York and Ohio.
Edwards' campaign said Wednesday that it had raised more than $307,000 online since the polls closed in Wisconsin.
"What happened in Wisconsin was surprising, even to me," he said. Edwards, eager to move forward, challenged Kerry to a series of debates and asserted, "I think the voters deserve to know the differences between us."
Even so, Edwards, a youthful-looking 50-year-old, has only won a single primary — his native South Carolina — compared to 15 contests for Kerry.
Former Vermont Gov. Dean, the one-time front-runner, dropped out Wednesday without a single win, leaving Edwards as the only remaining major challenger to Kerry.
Until now, Edwards has boasted of his refusal to engage in negative campaigning — either in his campaign commercials or in the Democratic debates.
"Edwards is going to have to go negative, something he hasn't really wanted to do, to draw a contrast between himself or Kerry on jobs and NAFTA," said Doug Schoen, an unaffiliated Democratic consultant who was President Clinton's pollster.
"I'm not sure he has the temperament," Schoen said.
Edwards emphasizes his humble origins as the son of a textile mill worker. But his worth has been estimated at $20 million to $50 million after a lucrative career as a plaintiff's lawyer.
He talks about people who have been left out or behind, but lives in a 13-room, four-story house in the Georgetown section of Washington that he paid $3.8 million for last year — a block from Kerry's home. Edwards also has homes in Raleigh and Wilmington, N.C.
Elected to the Senate in 1998, Edwards chose not to run for a second term, and has no other public service in his resume.
He offers his lack of experience as a plus, asking audiences who would do a better job at changing Washington's ways — a reform-minded newcomer or an entrenched politician.
Still, his lack of tenure means he has less of a record to defend.
He frequently talks about his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Kerry supported, suggesting it has cost many U.S. jobs. Edwards wasn't in the Senate when NAFTA was passed in 1993.
And he rarely mentions a trade-liberalization measure he did vote for, as did Kerry — a 2000 measure giving China elevated trade status. Far more U.S. jobs have been lost to China and other Asian nations than to Mexico or Canada, the countries covered by NAFTA, economists suggest.
On Feb. 3 in South Carolina, Edwards met with leaders of labor unions that supported former presidential rival Dick Gephardt, hoping to secure an endorsement. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa said Edwards told them he regretted his vote in favor of the China trade measure and called it one of his biggest mistakes.
"He's a very impressive man," Hoffa told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. "He has a good record on trade, though he did vote for (the China trade deal) and he admits it was a mistake now."
Like Kerry, Edwards also voted to give Bush authority for the Iraq war.
Edwards' main campaign theme about "two Americas" — one for the rich and powerful and another for everybody else — plays well with audiences.
"The economic set of issues right now is more important than Iraq," said Don Fowler, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and longtime South Carolina resident who supports Kerry. "It's a little surprising to me that Senator Edwards continues to show the level of strength that he has."
Edwards points to support by independent and Republican voters for his strong showing in Wisconsin — and suggests it shows "why I'm the best candidate to take on George Bush."
But even his "two Americas" theme could backfire, said Earl Black, a political scientist at Rice University. "He's talking about a division that I think is going to strike a lot of voters as too simple, with such a large middle class out there and all the complexities of the American economy."