Senate Race Marked Edwards as Rising Political Star During his first run for office in 1998, Democrat John Edwards used his telegenic personality and a populist message to win a North Carolina Senate race. For much of the past five years, his sights have been set on the White House.
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Senate Race Marked Edwards as Rising Political Star

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Senate Race Marked Edwards as Rising Political Star

Senate Race Marked Edwards as Rising Political Star

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John Edwards' latest presidential run comes a decade after his first political campaign. It was for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina. As part of our series on the presidential candidates' first campaigns, we look at the race that gave Edwards a reputation as a rising Democratic star.

NPR's Adam Hochberg reports.

ADAM HOCHBERG: When John Edwards began his first campaign, his ambitions were high and his political resume was thin. Seeking to defeat a Senate incumbent, Edwards entered the race having never worked in government or politics; in several recent elections, he hadn't even voted.

North Carolina political consultant Gary Pearce remembers first hearing about Edwards from a colleague.

Mr. GARY PEARCE (Political Consultant): He was talking about a friend of his who had been a successful lawyer and wanted to get involved in politics, and he wanted to run for Senate. I said, well, state senate? He said, oh no, United States Senate. I said, well, this I got to see.

HOCHBERG: What Pearce saw was enough to persuade him to go to work for Edwards' fledgling campaign. He found the 44-year-old trial lawyer unusually energetic and telegenic - a fresh face who Pearce felt would be a strong challenger to Senator Lauch Faircloth, the 70-year-old Republican incumbent.

Mr. PEARCE: Edwards at the time was raw political talent. He knew nothing about politics, but he knew how to connect with people. And he could look in a camera, master a script, and deliver it better than anybody I've ever seen.

(Soundbite of ad)

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina): I'm John Edwards. I'm running for the United State Senate. I want to tell you about where I come from and what I believe.

HOCHBERG: Edwards spent more than $6 million of his own money on the race, much of it on TV ads that presented him as everything Lauch Faircloth wasn't. While Faircloth had spent a lifetime in government, Edwards was an outsider. While Faircloth was a pro-business conservative, Edwards ran as a populist moderate. And while Faircloth was an uncomfortable campaigner with a grandfatherly appearance, Edwards had a youthful look that would later lead People magazine to name him the sexiest politician alive.

Chuck Fuller managed Faircloth's campaign.

Mr. CHUCK FULLER (Campaign Manager): It was very difficult taking someone with the service of Faircloth 40 years in North Carolina, giving back to the state, and running against somebody that was flashy and had a good haircut.

HOCHBERG: Faircloth's campaign was so afraid of Edwards' flashiness that they refused to debate him. At one political forum, they went out of their way to make sure Faircloth and Edwards weren't even seen together. Meanwhile, their strategy to attack Edwards as dishonest and too liberal for Southern voters gained little traction as Edwards traveled around North Carolina casting himself as a reformer.

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, John Edwards for U.S. Senate.

(Soundbite of applause)

HOCHBERG: Many of the issues Edwards talked about that year would sound familiar to people who've followed his presidential campaigns. He called for raising the minimum wage and reducing the cost of health care. And as he still does now, he bemoaned the influence of well-heeled Washington lobbyists.

Mr. EDWARDS: We have got to start the process of restoring people's faith, making them believe again that this really is a democracy, and that their voice matters when decisions are being made in Washington.

HOCHBERG: But Edwards' positions on some issues have shifted since 1998. Then he said the federal government desperately needed a balanced budget. Now, as he proposes a hundred billion-dollar a year health care plan, he says balancing the budget isn't a priority. He promised not to support tax increases in the Senate, but now backs higher taxes on the wealthy.

And while Edwards today aggressively seeks the support of labor unions, he seemed to discount their importance in this 1998 radio interview.

(Soundbite of radio broadcast)

Mr. EDWARDS: What my focus is, is on the working people. And most of the working people in North Carolina are not members of labor unions, as you well know.

Unidentified Man: Would you advocate that labor unions take a bigger role in the state of North Carolina?

Mr. EDWARDS: No. I mean, I don't mean to push off the issue about labor unions. I just don't think labor unions are an enormous issue in North Carolina one way or the other. We have a right to work law. I do not support the changing of that law.

HOCHBERG: To some of Edwards' critics, his policy shifts over the past decade prove one of the things his opponent said about him in that 1998 campaign - that he's more liberal than he let on during his first race. Chuck Fuller, the Faircloth campaign official, says once Edwards got to Washington, he moved sharply left.

Mr. FULLER: After the '98 campaign, the people of North Carolina quickly learned that just because you spoke with a Southern drawl didn't make you a moderate. He painted a picture to tell us one thing, and then when he got to Washington, we found out that wasn't true.

HOCHBERG: But Edwards' supporters say what they've seen in him over the past 10 years is growth - a deeper understanding of issues that's resulted in more finessed policy positions. And Gary Pearce, the Democratic consultant, says Edwards hasn't swayed from the values he showed as a political newcomer.

Mr. PEARCE: Everybody changes in 10 years, but basically his approach hasn't changed. The basic core of what he tapped into is a concern by people of whether politics represents me.

Mr. EDWARDS: A very important thing happened today. The people of North Carolina voted their hopes instead of their fears.

HOCHBERG: When Edwards gave his victory speech in November 1998, it was his first and so far his only election win. By 2002, about halfway through his Senate term, he was running for national office - a pursuit he's continued with few interruptions for most of the past five years.

Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

INSKEEP: You can find out the stories in our series about first campaigns at

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