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Dynamic, Even Electrifying, But...

Can Edwards really make much difference?

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"Hi, John Edwards!" I yelled out the window of my car. He was alone, making his way down North Myers Street, most likely to his stoop on the sidewalk in front of The Leader newspaper, or to Green's Restaurant on Trade Street.

Edwards' face lit up when I recognized him and he stuck out his hand. "I'm a reporter at The Leader," I said. "I've met you before." His whole body seemed to sink along with his smile. I wasn't some voter who'd just recognized him on the street. I was supposed to know who he was.

At the time, my boss Stan Kaplan, the now-deceased owner of the newspaper, was fundraising for Edwards. In those pre-historic days of Edwards' Senate campaign six years ago, when no one knew him from Adam, Kaplan would take him around town and introduce him to the bigwigs.

In between meetings, Edwards spent a lot of time at our office. Or rather, on the sidewalk in front of our office, shoving his hand at those who walked by. Sometimes, it seemed, he was out there for hours.

I initially committed Edwards' name to memory after Kaplan pointed out that I'd inadvertently forgotten to include it in an early article I wrote about the Democratic Senate primary. But I wouldn't say I was really aware of him until the incident a few weeks later at Green's. It was around lunchtime, and I happened to notice Edwards entering the restaurant out of the corner of my eye as I lit up a cigarette in the Leader parking lot next door.

I'm not certain exactly what transpired in the length of time it took me to smoke that cigarette and run upstairs to get my purse, but by the time I walked through the front door of the restaurant, two-thirds of the people in the place, people who just 15 minutes before didn't know who Edwards was, were gathered around him, listening with rapt attention to whatever it was he was saying.

As a person who spent dozens of hours every week listening to politicians pontificate, there wasn't much that impressed me. But this, I'd never seen before. Neither, apparently, had those folks at Green's. Several held their forgotten lunch plates in their hands, their food growing cold. He had them glued in a way that was almost eerie.

From across the room, I couldn't make out exactly what he was saying, which really wasn't important, anyway. For Edwards, speaking was more of an aerobic exercise. His arms and body carved out emphasis for his words in the space around him with such intensity that you were never quite certain he wasn't going to grab someone by the collar and shake him to drive home the point.

It was the kind of theatrics normally best enjoyed about 10 rows back from a stage, and if Edwards wasn't so clearly comfortable in his own skin, the raw emotion of his performance would have been too intense for a small space like Green's. As I watched him, the hair on my arms stood on end and I got goosebumps. I was seeing something rare, something I'd never seen before and haven't seen since, and I knew it. This guy could be President some day, I told Kaplan. I've been writing that ever since, no matter what the numbers said.

At the time in 1998, Edwards' name barely registered in the polls. But unknown to his Democratic challengers, Washington consultants were already working on a few million dollars' worth of television ads. While the other candidates in the race were hobbling by with staffs of two or fewer, a staff of 15 was already slaving away for Edwards, a trial lawyer reputed to be worth up to $38 million who ultimately spent $3.2 million of his own money on that primary. In North Carolina, Democratic primaries are considered to be grassroots affairs that turn on personal loyalties and a complex system of dealmaking. It was, and still is considered almost gauche by the party establishment to buy a primary with that much of one's own money. Party leaders like Erskine Bowles shunned Edwards and wrote thousand dollar checks to his opponent, D.G. Martin, a millionaire who loaned his campaign a mere $300,000.

By April, when Martin, the guy who was supposed to win the May primary, finally began taping television commercials, Edwards had run so many ads, he'd built a double-digit lead. It didn't matter that Martin had spent years building relationships with the state's African-American leaders. Edwards bridged the gap by hiring them to reach out to the black community for him. Martin's carefully planned grassroots strategy was no match for a multi-million dollar air war. Martin underestimated Edwards and got trounced. Six months later, after money poured in to Edwards' coffers, Republican incumbent Senator Lauch Faircloth lost for similar reasons.

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