Edwards Plays Up Past With Textile Workers

Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards (search) emphasized his Southern mill-worker background before a New York labor audience Monday, telling garment workers who have lost their jobs to overseas factories that "I take this personally."

"Your country needs to be there for you. It's no more complicated than that," Edwards told a laid-off worker at the Unite union's New York headquarters. The North Carolina senator cited his own family's hard times when the North Carolina textile mill where his father worked was shut down.

Edwards promoted an economic program he has said would help restore lost American jobs. He also sought to pick up former supporters of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) and would-be supporters of Ralph Nader (search).

Edwards told reporters that those who supported Nader four years ago should vote for Edwards now. "A lot of those voters would find me appealing," he said.

He said both he and Nader, who announced on Sunday an independent bid for the presidency, were high on "consumer issues" and "fighting for the little guy."

Edwards said he had talked to Dean several times since Dean's withdrawal from the race and was reaching out for his support but had no specific commitments. However, he said that he was picking up support from many former Dean supporters in March 2 "Super Tuesday" states, including Ohio.

Edwards will start running two commercials Tuesday in upstate New York media markets, but he is avoiding the ultra-expensive New York City market, where a week of ads costs at least $1 million. The ads, previously run in other states, focus on manufacturing and jobs and claim that there are two Americas.

Edwards draws contrasts with Kerry largely along class lines, pointing to his humble background and letting voters compare that with Kerry's patrician upbringing. He made that case — that he better understands the problems facing working families — again on Monday.

He presided over a round-table discussion at Unite, which represents 500,000 textile, garment and laundry workers. Omar Alexander, 59, said he had been laid off last year as a cutter after working for the same clothing company for 33 years when that company moved its operations overseas.

The company "didn't take one worker with them," Alexander said. "What's going to happen to people like me?"

Edwards, citing the "dignity I see in your face," told Alexander: "Men and women just like you built America. We ought to trade in a way that works."

"This is something that crowd in Washington just doesn't get," he said.

After touring the industrial Midwest over the weekend, Edwards was campaigning in New York and Georgia on Monday. He said he was relishing two campaign debates in the coming week, one in California and one in New York, both to be attended by Kerry and the other remaining Democratic candidates.

He has pledged not to attack his opponents, but he said he will emphasize distinctions between himself and Kerry. The debates, Edwards said, are "an opportunity for the first time for voters to focus on the two of us." Not only will voters see differences on issues, he said, but "what kind of candidates we would be against George Bush."