On the Road with John Edwards

NPR's Linda Wertheimer travels with Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards on the back roads of Iowa, where he is extremely popular with voters since his 2004 campaign.

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And another Democrat in the race, John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, was in Iowa this week. He was back where he did well in the 2004 caucuses, part of his first presidential race. This time, Edwards is hoping Iowa will push him into serious contention when the actual voting starts next year.

NPR's Linda Wertheimer raced out to Chelsea, Iowa, to catch up with Edwards. He rode in a short-leg of the RAGBRAI, a well-known bike ride across Iowa.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: A Houston dad that I raced in a car taking the back roads to avoid the flocks of cyclists coming over Iowa's blessedly gentle hills. Emerging from cornfields, they look like bright birds on wheels in their cycling shirts and helmets. Edwards cruised in the Chelsea with Lance Armstrong and stopped to take a turn at flipping pork chops to feed the ravenous bikers coming through.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, Presidential Candidate): Here you go. Sorry fellows, my wife flips (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man: Yeah. (Unintelligible).

Mr. EDWARDS: A round(ph) here, Elizabeth.

Ms. ELIZABETH EDWARDS (Lawyer): Okay.

Mr. EDWARDS: I've already done it. I didn't throw it here on the (unintelligible) grounds, so be careful.

Ms. EDWARDS: But all you do is flipping?

Mr. EDWARDS: Go to the other side.

WERTHEIMER: Elizabeth Edwards, as you heard, was there as well, riding for a bit with their younger children.

The next day, John Edwards is back to the more serious side of the race, offering a plan for tax reform to, he says, treat work at least as well as wealth.

Sen. EDWARDS: So here's what I'm going to do as president. First, I will repeal George Bush's tax cuts for families earning more than - $100,000 a year.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. EDWARDS: I will also raise the capital gains rate - top capital-gains rate to 28 percent, while we also protect the savings and investments of regular families. A 28-percent capital-gains tax rate will help make sure that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share.

WERTHEIMER: From politically risky talk about raising taxes in Des Moines, the candidate headed west for a series of community meetings. In Winterset, in Creston, Atlantic, and Council Bluff, Edwards sharpened his populist attack on the rich and powerful, dramatically warning the regular people as he says, against the forces arrayed(ph) against them.

Sen. EDWARDS: I want to talk today about what I believe to be an excellent treaty(ph), which is, I think this system is rigged. I think this political system is rigged…

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. EDWARDS: …and I think it's rigged by very powerful interests - control what happens. And the best examples are drug companies, insurance companies, big oil companies, power companies - the list goes on and on and on.

WERTHEIMER: There was a strong whiff of I'm mad and I'm not going to take it anymore about Edwards, possibly because he's been mired in third place for months.

On this trip, he heard stoic stories from people in these little towns about problems they cannot solve. In Creston, there was the woman who raised her only grandson and wonders why he has to go to Iraq for the third time. Speaking in what was the waiting room of a beautiful old train station, Edwards told the crowd that taking on the powerful would not be easy.

Sen. EDWARDS: They're not going to change. They're terrified of big change. They don't want to see it happen. But I don't know about you, but I think this country badly needs big change.

WERTHEIMER: Edwards is not the only member of the family speaking out. Elizabeth Edwards has been widely quoted for differing with her husband on the question of gay marriage. She speaks candidly about her cancer, says she's off the campaign for a couple of days for a treatment back home, an appointment she has to keep.

I spoke briefly to her the day the Edwards family joined the Iowa's bike ride.

Ms. EDWARDS: There is no strategy here. I'm speaking bluntly, maybe because John was vice-presidential candidate or maybe because he's running again, maybe because of the cancer. I'd like to think it was all because of my book. But, you know, for whatever reason, I get more coverage, and therefore, to things that I say - I've been saying all along might end up in the newspaper.

WERTHEIMER: Riding across Iowa in his campaign van, John Edwards says the same thing: there is no strategy here. He's talking about the same issues as always, but he talks about the need for boldness, no manipulation, no baby steps, no replacing one set of insiders with another.

Outraged is a word he often uses. I suggested a kind of the-hell-with-it attitude in his campaigning.

Sen. EDWARDS: In a political sense, that could be true. It couldn't be further from the truth in terms of what I feel inside. And I think it's time to quit being careful and cautious. Well, how are we going to talk about these in soft( ways that everybody feels good about? I don't feel good about it. It's not right. And somebody's got to tell the truth about these things.

WERTHEIMER: Candidate John Edwards on the road in Iowa.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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