John Edwards' campaign scoffed Tuesday at a new effort to depict the Democratic presidential candidate as phony after an influential columnist for a newspaper in Edwards' birth state wrote that his personal experiences only reinforce his image of Edwards as plastic.
Edwards spokesman Eric Schultz suggested the editorial is a farce and noted that columnist Brad Warthen of The State newspaper, based in Columbia, S.C., endorsed Joe Lieberman a day before the Connecticut senator dropped out of the Democratic primary race in 2004.
Schultz also pointed out that columnists in other newspapers have opined that Edwards "is shaping the Democratic race by leading with ideas" and a June internal polling memo claims Edwards bests other Democratic candidates in mock general election match-ups.
In his column Tuesday, Warthen wrote about three episodes he had with Edwards during the latter's presidential primary campaign and vice presidential bid alongside John Kerry in 2004. In each, he described Edwards as a man who put on a show for audiences, but showed utter disregard for individuals behind the scenes.
Warthen wrote that Edwards played up "a lot of aw-shucking, smiling, showing of genuine concern, and warm expressions of determination to close the gap between the Two Americas" when the candidate met the editorial board at The State while seeking its endorsement in January 2004. During the same visit, he treated the receptionist poorly, Warthen contended.
On another occasion, Warthen described how Edwards sat slack and bored-faced backstage before being introduced at a local rally. The author described how he was struck that "as his introduction reached its climax, he straightened, and turned on a thousand-watt smile as easily and artificially as flipping a switch."
Warthen said Edwards appeared Bill Clinton-like and the change in attitude seemed "so obviously a thing of art, that I was taken aback despite three decades of seeing politicians at work."
In the third occasion, Edwards wasn't even in the room, and Warthen said he got a bad impression because he heard from one of the guests that the candidate had gone jogging after he was supposed to be at a campaign event preceding the one attended by the columnist.
In his blog, Warthen admits that the January 2004 episode he recounted, in which Edwards showed off his "salt-encrusted" snow boot as if he had just walked in from New Hampshire, was prompted by a member of the editorial board inquiring about Edwards' footwear. But Warthen said that doesn't help him shake the ill feeling he has.
The newspaper, which has a statewide audience, ran a generally positive story on Edwards a week earlier in which it noted that the candidate is not sweating a third place position behind Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in state polling.
The article explains that Edwards has cast "himself as the lone fighter for poor and working-class Americans. He says he has dedicated his life to fighting the big businesses that export jobs, undermine labor unions and profit excessively off prescription drugs and health care."
“It’s been several years now since most South Carolina primary voters have heard directly from me,” Edwards said in an interview with the newspaper. “I will be responsible for reminding them of my story.”
While the newspaper's editorial page is influential in state politics, a source close to the Edwards campaign said the anecdotal piece is ridiculous. Schultz also suggested that image stories in the media distract voters from the critical issues facing the United States.
"Senator Edwards won South Carolina in 2004 and is going to win it again because he's the only one in this race offering bold, transformational ideas to create the fundamental change voters want to see in this country — and he’s being honest about how to achieve it," Schultz said, citing universal health care, education and healthy rural areas as key focuses in the campaign.
Edwards, who is trying to break through the talk about appearances, has attacked the news media in general for not giving him a forum to speak about the issues. At the same time, he has refused invitations to appear on FOX News.
But Edwards isn't short of forums to convey his message of two Americas, and is running ahead of other Democratic candidates among union voters. He has reportedly already impressed Teamsters President James Hoffa after he attended a barbecue in Chicago last weekend in which he criticized U.S. trade policies. Labor supporters were to hear from all the Democratic contenders on Tuesday night at an AFL-CIO-sponsored debate in Chicago.
The campaign is also working on Edwards' image in part by exploiting the Internet. Support for the candidate in the blogosphere outpaces his polling numbers on the campaign trail and liberal Web loggers provided a welcome mat to the candidate at the Yearly Kos convention this past weekend.
In a recent article in an online information technology magazine, Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate's wife and personal adviser, called the Internet empowering.
"In some ways, it's the way we have to go," she said. "We can't make John black, we can't make him a woman. Those things get you a lot of press, worth a certain amount of fundraising dollars. Now it's nice to get on the news, but not the be all and end all.
"It's about bypassing the sieve of the mainstream media," Elizabeth Edwards added. "The idea that you have people standing between you and the voter is diminished, and the capacity to speak directly empowers candidates to trust their own voices."
Among the tour-de-forces achieved by the campaign through the Internet is a YouTube video mocking the image issue by showing Edwards primping before the camera to the song "Hair." Mixed into the montage of famous and non-famous heads of hair are images of Iraq and New Orleans. At the end the tagline reads: "What Really Matters? You Choose."
The 32-second video has gotten nearly 218,000 hits since it was released.
FOXNews.com's Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.