Seeking to regain his political footing, White House hopeful John Edwards is pursuing a road less traveled: a three-day, eight-state tour through pockets of urban and rural poverty.
Beginning Sunday night in New Orleans and ending Wednesday in Appalachian Kentucky, the former North Carolina senator will reinvigorate an old campaign theme and test an even older notion: that talking about poor people is a politically losing proposition.
The poverty rate in America has stayed fairly constant since the late 1960s. But polls show that the issue of poverty and homelessness consistently ranks low among voters’ priorities. The discussion has become so fraught with moral and racial overtones that presidential contenders often find it best to say little or nothing.
But Edwards insists that “people do care” about those less fortunate and believe government has a role, even a responsibility, to help those who cannot help themselves. They just have to be asked.
“I think the best measure is not a poll,” the Democrat said Thursday, “but the way Americans responded when a hurricane hit New Orleans. They made contributions. They volunteered.”
Skepticism is widespread. “To the extent that Edwards can link the poverty issue to a wider problem that the middle class can associate itself with, then he may be able to get some traction,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a domestic policy advisor during President Clinton’s first term. “If it’s simply a question of the bottom 10% of the population, then he will not.”
Ben Tulchin, whose firm conducts polling for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, another Democratic presidential contender, put it this way: “It’s a nice story, the poverty thing. But at some time, voters are going to say, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”
For some Democratic primary voters -- Edwards’ target audience -- there is a tinge of nostalgia.
The tour was conspicuously modeled after past pilgrimages, stopping in Marks, Miss., where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began his 1968 Poor People’s March on Washington, and finishing at the Floyd County Courthouse in Prestonsburg, Ky., where Sen. Robert F. Kennedy ended his iconic anti-poverty tour the same year.
But the parallels only go so far.
ABC’s “Good Morning America” plans to host an Edwards town-hall meeting in New Orleans, and the campaign is using the Internet to solicit $8 contributions in support of Edwards’ candidacy, symbolic of the one in eight Americans living in poverty. The online solicitation said: “The cynics might attack us.... Let them attack. We know what’s right.”
Edwards’ travels could bolster his image as the most liberal of the leading Democratic candidates, a shift from his 2004 run for president. He has staked the position with uncompromising opposition to the Iraq war and an expansive healthcare proposal.
Though poverty may not resonate as an issue with most Americans, “there are few groups that are more concerned about the poor than Democratic primary voters,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.
Edwards could also benefit from talking about poverty, precisely because there is apparently so little political gain, demonstrating a personal conviction that transcends polling.
He has laid out perhaps the most comprehensive program of any Democrat running. His goal is eradicating poverty within 30 years through tax credits and other incentives, programs expanding access to healthcare and higher education, and government creation of 1 million “stepping-stone jobs” for adults who have struggled to find work.
The tour comes at a difficult time for Edwards’ candidacy. His fundraising in the second quarter of the year dropped significantly from the first, placing him much closer financially to the lower-tier candidates than to the two Democratic front-runners, Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
More damaging were stories calling attention to certain extravagances -- pricey haircuts, the huge North Carolina mansion he built -- as well as his work for a hedge fund and the large fees he has collected to speak about poverty. The revelations were all the more destructive because of the image Edwards cultivated in his first White House campaign -- as the son of a millworker, who grew wealthy as a lawyer fighting for the little guy -- and his theme of two Americas, separate and unequal.
Edwards has tried humor to minimize the harm. “We want people to be able to do well. We want somebody to be able to come from nothing to spending $400 on a haircut,” he joked during a speech last month on economic inequality.
But clearly his image has suffered, and questions about such fripperies are likely to trail him throughout his 1,800-mile trip -- which his campaign dubs the “Road to One America Tour.”
“He’s trying to create an emotional narrative about himself,” said Mellman, who conducted polling for the 2004 ticket of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry and Kerry’s running mate, Edwards. “There’s no doubt the haircuts and the home and the hedge fund could create some doubts about the authenticity of that narrative.”
Edwards, speaking via cellphone from a campaign stop in Detroit, dismissed such talk: “I think if you look at the arc of my life it’s a very clear pattern” of helping those with less.