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The Daily Tar Heel

Beyond blue heaven

Edwards dares detractors to question his sincerity - but many say he's gearing up for another White House run

The fluorescent lights were more subdued than the blinding glare of national TV cameras, but the echoes of a presidential campaign cut short bounced off the Rotunda walls.

A former presidential and vice presidential candidate, John Edwards drew a large crowd to the UNC Law School on Tuesday to speak about his new work with the University’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.

“The content of our country’s character is at stake,” Edwards said. “The solutions and the ideas that are needed to end poverty are out there.”

The former U.S. senator recounted tales of his travel around the country visiting with those living on welfare and in poverty.

“In the rooms where we met, America was there,” he said.

“We want them to be a part of the fabric of America.”

During his speech Tuesday, Edwards’ words and ideas sounded similar to those he espoused on the campaign trail.

While his work is based in North Carolina, his research during the past month has already taken him across the country, especially to Southern states.

But to be a formidable White House contender in 2008, Edwards must do more than that.

“He’s got to do some foreign travel, broaden his base, his sense that he knows a lot of things,” said Ferrel Guillory, director of UNC’s Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life.

While addressing poverty, Edwards is able to offer up problems and solutions to many national issues, such as Social Security, health care and even foreign relations.

“I want presidential candidates to be well-educated, and I think the University has a role in educating presidential candidates,” Guillory said.

“The center here gives Edwards a platform to speak, an ability to convene people.”

While Edwards says he truly believes in the work he’s doing at UNC, many — including some in the audience Tuesday — question his motives.

They say it seems odd that he would base his work in a town where the median family income is about $86,000 and in a county with an average income of more than $69,000.

“I’m happy to have anybody judge my sincerity on this,” Edwards said, adding that he was the only candidate competing for the Democratic nomination in the 2004 presidential primary to shine a light on poverty as a national issue.

But skeptics claim Edwards is using the center as a jumping-off point.

“(His) term in the Senate ended, so Edwards needed other kinds of vehicles to sustain him between the end of one election and the beginning of the 2008 campaign,” Guillory said.

“One of those vehicles is the center.”

Schorr Johnson, communications director for the N.C. Democratic Party, said that Edwards’ work is legitimate, and that those who question it simply recognize his potential in 2008.

“That criticism … is almost indicative of the fact that Republicans have to be scared of … such a talented political figure,” he said.

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Guillory said the work Edwards has set out to do at UNC should not be taken as a fleeting interest.

“It’s a mark of who he sees himself to be, both as a person and a political figure, that he chose to focus on work and poverty and families,” he said.

“It’s not a think tank about abstract foreign policy things. It’s not an ethereal topic or a topic that could be dismissed as just academic.

“It’s about a real issue that affects real people.”

Win some, lose some

Many state Democrats are delighted to have their golden boy return after one term in Washington, D.C., and two years on the campaign trail, Johnson said.

“Edwards could have gone anywhere in the country … but he returned to his home state to live and work full time,” Johnson said.

Guillory said the man often described as Kennedy-esque has been playing smart politics during his short time at the University.

“He’s done the right thing politically by showing up at some basketball games,” he said.

“He just has to be careful not to simply be using the University. This really does have to be a universal educational opportunity.”

But not all former supporters are excited about the UNC alumnus’s intention to run for the White House again in 2008.

Many, disheartened by their failure to oust President Bush, are ready to move on.

“People want to not be reminded of last year’s ticket anymore,” said Tom Jensen, former party affairs director for UNC Young Democrats.

“I think people have kind of soured on Edwards as president and are ready for a new face in 2008.”

Whether it’s the Oval Office or some other political goal, Johnson said, the only certainty is that no one has seen the last of Edwards.

“Senator Edwards has spent his entire career — even before politics — advocating for those less fortunate,” he said.

“From here, the sky’s the limit for Edwards’ political career.”

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