The Democrats' New Golden Boy

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As Democrats try to make their case against President Bush, the polls say their message should be selling. But it isn't. In fact, it's barely being heard, which has many in the party wondering whether the real problem is finding the right messenger--someone who can distill their many lines of shopworn argument into something that feels resonant and new. Which is why the name of John Edwards is coming up more and more in Washington these days.

Never heard of John Edwards? To hear John McCain talk about him, you would think he was talking about, well, about John McCain. "A lot of charisma," McCain gushes. "His honesty becomes apparent." Democratic political consultant James Carville knows horses: "A real thoroughbred. He's got the touch." And then there's the pronouncement of PEOPLE magazine: "sexiest politician."

The object of this buzz is a 47-year-old Democratic Senator who never held public office until 1999 and before that didn't even bother to vote half the time. Even so, Edwards made it all the way to first runner-up in Al Gore's search for a running mate last summer. His first speech on the Senate floor--explaining his vote against throwing Bill Clinton out of office--won raves, even from some Republicans. And his trip last weekend to Iowa, the state that holds the nation's first presidential contest, aroused far more talk than a freshman Senator's speech to a law school should warrant.

The hoopla says much about the political talent of a former trial lawyer who so dazzled jurors that they handed his clients some of the largest awards in North Carolina history. It also says a lot about where the Democrats now find themselves--with a solid message but few charismatic messengers. "We have differences. We have a responsibility to talk about those differences," Edwards says. "Civility does not mean surrender."

Who better to deliver that message--and harder to pin a label on--than a man who preached at the National Prayer Breakfast and voted against John Ashcroft the very same day? Edwards even has an everyman story on his side. The son of a millworker, he married his law-school sweetheart and drives his small children to the Senate day-care center--the first Senator in the staff's memory to put his children in the facility along with those of Senate employees.

If Edwards swats away questions about presidential aspirations, it may be because he doesn't yet have a record; he has never passed a serious bill. Another obstacle to running in 2004 is that he will be facing a re-election jinx; no incumbent has won his Senate seat since Sam Ervin, in 1968. To make sure he will, Edwards spends recesses touring parts of the state that haven't seen a Senator in years, even decades.

But Edwards is preparing for a wider stage. This year he gave up some narrow committee assignments to take posts that will put him in the middle of debates over health, education and foreign policy. And he is looking to make his mark with passage of the patient's bill of rights, an HMO-reform measure that Edwards has co-authored with McCain. As a trial lawyer, he says, "the most important thing is for you to be better prepared than any human being in that courthouse." He thinks that's the trick in politics too.