Edwards on the Attack in New Hampshire

John Edwards toured New Hampshire over the weekend as part of his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He has ratcheted up his campaign rhetoric — and his attacks on Washington lobbyists.

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Long before they face Republicans, Democratic presidential candidates have to distinguish themselves from each other. And this morning we'll listen to the way one candidate is doing that.

Think of John Edwards as an example of Democrats trying to get a shot. The winner gets a nomination in a political climate that, for the moment at least, seems to favor Democrats. And in recent days, John Edwards has attacked a political system that he calls rigged with greed.

We begin this morning with NPR's Adam Hochberg in the early primary state of New Hampshire.

ADAM HOCHBERG: As he visited 15 New Hampshire cities in four days, John Edwards adopted the rhetoric of a reformer and the persona of a political underdog. While the former senator ran for president in 2004 as a hopeful optimist, his message now is more combative, tinged with anger at a federal government he says is corrupted by big business.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): It's fine to talk about hope. I've done it a lot in the past myself; still do. But I believe if you want to see a real change to Washington, you need a fighter. You need somebody that will stand up to these insurance companies, drug companies - the people who basically run Washington, D.C. They have to be taken head on and beaten. And that's exactly what I intend to do as president of the United States.

HOCHBERG: Throughout his New Hampshire trip, Edwards distanced himself from the Washington political system and from his own party's leadership. He criticized congressional Democrats for not insisting more strongly on withdrawal from Iraq. He said legislation funding the war should be tied to a timetable for troops to come home.

On several of his core campaign issues - health care, global warming and fair trade - he accused Congress of caving to deep-pocketed lobbyists. And for 2008, he warned voters against, in his words, swapping Washington insiders of one party with Washington insiders of the other.

Mr. EDWARDS: And I don't know how you feel about this. But I don't personally want to see a bunch of corporate Republicans replaced by corporate Democrats. I want to see the power in this democracy where it began, which is with you.

HOCHBERG: Edwards' more strident approach comes as he tries to make up ground in New Hampshire before the state's January primary. Unlike in Iowa, where polls show him running neck and neck with Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Edwards has been running well behind them here. University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala says Edwards no longer is a fresh face like he was in 2004, so he's searching for a new identity.

Mr. DANTE SCALA (University of New Hampshire): John Edwards's problem all along in this election cycle is that he's been in the third wheel. Hillary Clinton has taken on the role of the frontrunner and Barack Obama has taken on the role of the insurgent. And that leaves John Edwards struggling to figure out exactly where he fits in. And I think this new message is an attempt to create a role for himself.

HOCHBERG: Scala says Edwards' populist image also has been hampered by recent questions about his personal finances. This month Edwards said he'll reorganize his investment portfolio after the Wall Street Journal reported he owned a stake in a hedge fund with ties to the subprime lending industry, an industry Edwards often criticizes. That came on top of the scrutiny Edwards has already received about such things as the size of his house and even the cost in his haircuts.

This weekend, the former senator downplayed those issues and said they're not affecting his campaign.

Mr. EDWARDS: They're almost entirely being driven by these people who see their job and their role to try to quiet anybody who speaks up for the poor, the disenfranchised, the uninsured. That's what all this is about: houses, investments, and that kind of stuff. That's all an effort to quiet me. But it will not work.

Unidentified Woman #1: John, I wish you all the luck in the world. We need you.

Mr. EDWARDS: Thank you.

Unidentified Woman #2: Thanks for coming to Portsmouth.

Mr. EDWARDS: Wonderful to see you.

Unidentified Woman #2: Good luck.

HOCHBERG: As Edwards traveled New Hampshire this weekend with his wife Elizabeth, he generally attracted large, enthusiastic crowds. And supporter Sandy Muchi(ph), who also backed Edwards in 2004, was among those impressed by the stronger tone of this year's campaign.

Ms. SANDY MUCHI (Edwards Supporter): You know, when you start out something and you're new at it, you (unintelligible) and so on. He's done with that. And now he's just this is who I am and this is what I believe. If that's what you want, vote for me. If you don't agree with it, vote for someone else. And he's just out there. And I think that frees him.

HOCHBERG: Edwards calls New Hampshire hugely important to his presidential hopes. He recently moved some campaign staff out of Nevada, an early caucus state, redeploying some of them here, some to Iowa, and some to his native South Carolina, a state Edwards won during the 2004 primaries, but another place where he's trailing Senators Clinton and Obama this time.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

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