WASHINGTON – Business groups mobilized quickly after the selection of John Edwards (search) to fling the two words they think will most sour voters on the Democratic vice presidential candidate: trial lawyer.
"As a trial lawyer, Edwards is associated with a controversial fringe of the legal profession that conducts raids on companies that not infrequently lead to larger financial gains for themselves than their individual clients," Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers (search), said in a statement.
"This fringe group of trial lawyers frequently drives viable companies into bankruptcy and puts thousands of Americans out of work," he added.
Trial lawyer, in other words, equals greedy and seedy.
"The public really believes the legal system is messed up right now, and blame the personal injury lawyers like John Edwards," said Republican pollster Frank Luntz.
At the same time, experts said business leaders — including President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney (search) — should tread carefully because the public doesn't hold their profession in high regard either. Business executives ranked just two spots above lawyers for honesty and ethics, with congressmen sandwiched in between.
Bush was part owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and was a Texas businessman, primarily in oil, before being elected governor in 1994. Cheney ran the Halliburton oil-services company before resigning in 2000 to become Bush's running mate.
A number of corporate scandals have hit U.S. businesses in the past few years, topped by the massive bankruptcy of Houston-based Enron Corp. that led to charges against top company officials.
Business groups in the post-Enron world should be concerned their efforts might backfire at a time "when so many CEOs have been indicted or are on the verge," said Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University.
Edwards made millions of dollars during his 20-year career as a personal injury lawyer in North Carolina, representing consumers that juries found had been wronged by big business.
But Republicans and their business allies may have a hard time labeling him "as an ambulance chaser" because his stories of "defending poor people who have been mishandled, mistreated, abused and hurt by big business" are appealing, Graff said.
The trial lawyer label is a rap Edwards beat back in his 1998 Senate race, when incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth's campaign failed to find any of cases it could label as frivolous or an abuse of the legal system.
Edwards responded by talking about his clients: a 5-year-old girl whose intestines were sucked into a swimming pool drain, and a boy with cerebral palsy whose insurer refused to pay for therapy.
Almost three-fourths of all voters said in exit polls that Edwards' profession did not influence their choice.
Edwards' skills as a campaigner have helped him deflect such charges and will continue to do so, said Thad Beyle, political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
For instance, Edwards has answered critics this way: "I think people who don't like the jury system are people who hate the idea that everybody is treated exactly the same inside a courtroom, no matter who you are or who your family is or what kind of power you have outside the courtroom."
His up-from-the-bootstraps biography — he is the son of two mill workers — also helps. "It's not like he came from a family of lawyers or he's wealthy because he inherited money," Beyle said.
The trial lawyer attacks probably serve to energize business groups in support of Bush rather than stir the average voter, said Beyle. "There's such an antagonism between big business and these trial lawyers," he added.
Said Sherman Joyce, president of the American Tort Reform Association, as Senate Republicans pushed legislation to prevent lawyers from making millions in class-action lawsuits: "Senator Edwards has consistently supported a pro-litigation, anti-civil justice reform agenda that puts his wealthy personal injury lawyer patrons ahead of the American people."
At the very least, Edwards' occupation provides fodder for the late-night comics.
"As you know, John Edwards is a former trial lawyer. Which is a smart move considering the last election was decided in court. Kerry may need him to step in and sue or something," said Jay Leno.