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Edwards levels attack on Clinton-era White House

Times Staff Writer

Sharpening his rhetoric against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, John Edwards used a combative speech here Thursday to cast his front-running rival for the Democratic presidential nomination as part of a “corroded” Washington culture that is neglecting the nation’s problems and doing the bidding of powerful corporations.

The former North Carolina senator didn’t mention Clinton by name, but he left no doubt he was condemning Clinton-era politics when he said the Lincoln Bedroom should not be “for rent” and cautioned that “nostalgia” was no reason to elect someone president.

Edwards framed the choices in the 2008 campaign as “caution versus courage; old versus new; calculation versus principle.”

“The problem with nostalgia is what we tend to do is only remember what you like and you forget the parts you didn’t like,” he said at an outdoor town-hall-style event.

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“It’s not just that the answers of the past aren’t up to the job that we face today. It’s that the system that produced them was corrupt and is still corrupt. It’s controlled by big corporations, the lobbyists they hire to protect their bottom line, and the politicians who curry their favor and carry their water.”

Edwards delivered the speech on the Dartmouth College campus, at the start of a four-day, 750-mile bus tour through New Hampshire, which holds the nation’s first primary in January. Speaking in his shirt sleeves, he cleaved to a populist message, portraying himself as the champion of ordinary Americans who are losing ground to lobbyists and remote Washington politicians. After one event in Hooksett, the campaign played the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” as Edwards shook the last hands and boarded his “Fighting for One America” campaign bus.

He said in Hanover that the nation’s goal should not be merely to install a Democrat in the White House, but to elect someone who would battle corporate interests that wanted to foil plans for a new healthcare system.

“Just swapping the Washington insiders of one party for the Washington insiders of another is not what we need,” he said.

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A spokesman for Clinton later rejected the notion that the New York senator was a creature of Washington, as Edwards had implied.

“Angry attacks on other Democrats won’t improve Sen. Edwards’ flagging campaign,” Clinton aide Howard Wolfson said. “Sen. Clinton has the leadership and experience to make real change happen, and she has been fighting for American families for 35 years.”

Edwards is traveling across New Hampshire with his three children and his wife, Elizabeth, who helped him field one question about their spacious new North Carolina home. The house features squash and basketball courts and is set on 102 acres. A man asked if Edwards could live in such a home and still be an authentic spokesman for the downtrodden and a critic of unchecked energy consumption.

Elizabeth Edwards said the house was energy-efficient, heated partly through solar energy, and not as massive as some reports had suggested.

She conceded that “we do have a nice house,” but added, “If you don’t believe he’s a good advocate for those issues, don’t vote for him.”

Earlier, John Edwards invoked a Clinton White House scandal that became a symbol of fundraising excess: Big donors were rewarded with an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom.

“The American people deserve to know that their presidency is not for sale, the Lincoln Bedroom is not for rent,” said Edwards, his party’s candidate for vice president in 2004.

After leaving Hanover, Edwards’ bus stopped at a gas station. He got out and spoke to reporters as his bus was filled with biodiesel fuel.

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Asked about his Lincoln Bedroom comment, Edwards suggested he was not singling out Clinton.

“I’m not holier than thou about this,” he said. “I have personally raised millions of dollars as a presidential candidate. What I’m talking about is what’s happened in the past through multiple administrations.”

He said he wanted to see the Democrats make “a clear stand from this day forward that we’re going to change the way we do things.”

For much of the day, Edwards spoke to audiences of about several hundred people. People listened politely, though in some cases he didn’t appear to close the deal.

Peter Hocking, 55, a retired member of the Coast Guard, noted Edwards’ own service in the Senate.

“He said he’s for change,” said Hocking, who supports another Democratic candidate, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. “He said we have to get rid of Washington insiders. But what is he? A senator. He’s a Washington insider.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com

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