Edwards is a moderate Democrat from a traditionally conservative state. He represents the new, more liberal face of North Carolina, a stark contrast to the conservative era fronted by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who announced his retirement earlier this month.
Edwards has been widely mentioned as a potential presidential candidate in 2004, despite the fact that he never held a political office prior to his 1998 election to the U.S. Senate.
He was rumored to have been on the short list of prominent Democrats being considered as running mates by presidential candidate Al Gore, although Edwards eventually lost the position to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.
Edwards often has been compared to former President Bill Clinton -- both lawyers with dynamic personalities.
But others say those personalities allow the two men to pull the wool over the public eye with a charismatic smile.
Edwards has shot to the top of his party in the three years he has served North Carolina in the Senate, but questions remain as to whether he is a deserving recipient of success or merely a politician being pushed to the top by his party.
Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC's program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life, said Edwards' rise can be attributed more to his personality and ability than to his power within the legislature. "(Edwards) is very good at making a presentation to the fullest and making his case to the people through television and appearance," he said. "He doesn't have the kind of power that comes from a legislative position. He's not going to the White House like Senator (Majority Leader Thomas) Daschle to make deals with the president."
Edwards served on several low-level committees his first year in office, including the Housing & Urban Affairs Committee and a Special Y2K committee. While he still does not have the power of a long-term senator, Edwards now serves on several powerful committees, including the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
Guillory added that while Edwards has gotten some important committee assignments in his three years in the Senate, his success has resulted from a combination of circumstances like vice presidential consideration, in addition to his hard work and abilities.
Andrew Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University, said he thinks the American political climate was ready to support someone like Edwards, whose moderate stance on issues appeals to a large segment of the population. "With the parties being so close I think the Democrats realize that nationally, they need moderates in prominent positions," he said.
Taylor said moderates are pivotal in orchestrating the compromises necessary to pass important pieces of legislation.
Edwards demonstrated his ability to work with other senators this year when he collaborated with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., to craft a Patient's Bill of Rights.
The bill passed the Senate this summer but has yet to pass the U.S. House of Representatives and is not supported by President Bush.
But Edwards' moderate stance and willingness to compromise might not be enough to win him the presidency in a country left skeptical of the electoral process after the 2000 presidential election controversy.
N.C. Republican Party Chairman Bill Cobey said Edwards is being pushed as a potential presidential candidate because the Democratic Party does not have many strong candidates. "They don't have much talent nationally," he said. "They're looking to find somebody who they think will appeal to the national electorate."
Cobey said he thinks Edwards' political career would be more credible if he concentrated on issues important to his state rather than focusing on his own agenda. "Rather than gallivanting all over the country trying to (appeal) to left-wing groups, he first needs to try and be the best senator he can be," he said.
But Taylor said Edwards needs to take advantage of his current standing within the party. He said that if Edwards decides not to run for president in 2004 and another Democrat wins, he will have to wait up to eight years before running again. "I'm of the opinion that if he wants to be president -- and I'm not sure he does -- (he) needs to take opportunities when they arise," Taylor said.
But N.C. Democratic Party officials say they feel Edwards has successfully served the people of the state. "I think Senator Edwards is trying to be the best senator for North Carolina that he can be," said Scott Falmlen, executive director of the N.C. Democratic Party.
Falmlen added that the issues Edwards has chosen to tackle in the Senate, rather than efforts by party officials, have moved him to prominence.
And Guillory said political parties do not have as much influence over candidates as in previous years. "Political parties are not what they used to be in terms of taking a personality and grooming them," he said. "Senators these days are less party dependent and rely more on individual entrepreneur politics.
"I don't think all the Democratic leaders got together in a room somewhere and decided to promote Edwards."
But Edwards says it is neither his abilities nor his party that has pushed him into the national spotlight. He told The Daily Tar Heel on Saturday at the opening of N.C. Women's and Children's Hospitals that his success stems from his willingness to serve his constituents.
"The most important thing for any public figure is to stay focused on the things that affect the public," Edwards said. "Everything else will take care of itself."
The State & National Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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