Local Politics

Edwards Stresses Grassroots Campaign for 2008

Posted December 28, 2006 10:12 a.m. EST
Updated December 28, 2006 11:51 p.m. EST

— Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards launched his second bid for the White House Thursday by calling on Americans "to be patriotic about more than war" and backing a grassroots effort to rebuild the country and its global reputation.

Edwards, who lost in his campaign in 2004 as both a Democratic candidate and vice presidential nominee, said he has learned in the past two years that Americans need to take charge of solving their own problems instead of waiting for the government.

"If we wait for the next election and hope the next person elected president is going to solve our problems for us, we're living in a fantasy world," Edwards said during a press conference in New Orleans' Ninth Ward neighborhood. "If we actually want to change this country and move it in a direction we want, we're going to have to do it together."

The North Carolina native has been in New Orleans in recent days as a volunteer rebuilding houses destroyed more than a year ago by Hurricane Katrina. He said he wanted to begin his campaign there because the city shows both what's wrong and what's right with America.

The thousands of volunteers and scores of religious and nonprofit groups that have helped rebuild the city in recent months illustrate how Americans can work together to solve problems, he said. At the same time, he said, the devastation that has lingered in New Orleans is indicative of the lack of leadership in Washington.

Edwards said the lack of leadership stretches beyond the U.S. borders, maintaining that the country is not the moral leader across the world that it once was. He called for more effort to halt global warming and genocide in Africa and said he would back an immediate draw down of U.S. troops in Iraq to hasten that country's transition back to local control.

"The problem in Iraq is not susceptible to a military solution. It needs a political solution," he said. "It is a mistake to escalate U.S. (military) presence there."

Edwards, a one-term senator, was criticized during the 2004 campaign for his limited foreign-policy experience. But he said Thursday that he has spent much of the past two years meeting with world leaders to discuss problems facing the U.S. and other countries and has a better sense of what actions the U.S. needs to take.

"We need Americans to be patriotic about more than war," he said, calling for people to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles to conserve energy and to support international efforts to bolster countries wracked by violence.

"We should be an example for the rest of the world," he said. "When America doesn't lead, there is no (global) stability."

Edwards also turned the criticism of his foreign-policy experience around on the administration of President George W. Bush. Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld formed one of the most experienced foreign-policy teams in recent memory, but "have been an absolute disaster," he said.

"Experience, No. 1, doesn't equal good judgment and, No. 2, doesn't indicate that you have a vision," he said.

Domestically, Edwards said, the country needs to roll back tax breaks on the wealthy -- that was a major point of his 2004 campaign highlighting what he called "two Americas," one for the privileged and one for the working-class -- and invest that money in creating a universal health care program, making college tuition more affordable and expanding research into renewable energy.

The low-key announcement of his "Tomorrow Begins Today" campaign in a New Orleans back yard stands in stark contrast to Edwards' 2003 announcement in his hometown of Robbins, where hundreds of relatives, friends and townspeople gathered to cheer him on.

"North Carolina is who I am and where I'm from," Edwards said after his press conference.

Still, campaign officials said he wanted to position himself as a national candidate, not a North Carolina one, and take advantage of the slow news period over the holidays. Also, officials said, the troubles New Orleans has experienced over the past year dovetail with Edwards' focus on fighting poverty nationwide.

Although some New Orleans residents told WRAL that Edwards was capitalizing on their misfortune, they said they hoped his announcement would refocus attention on their continuing struggles after Katrina.

"It's just part of the game that they play. There could be a lot of smoke in there, or he could be sincere about what he's talking about," New Orleans resident Michael Knight said.

"We hope that it signals to all presidential candidates the fact that New Orleans is important to America," New Orleans City Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis said. "I thought (Edwards' presence) was extremely significant and very encouraging."

Edwards noted he's been to New Orleans several times since Katrina to help with the recovery.

He quickly hit the campaign trail Thursday, heading from New Orleans to Des Moines, Iowa. He also planned visits to New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina before returning to Chapel Hill for a homecoming rally.

Some of Edwards' supporters in the Triangle are already planning fundraisers and rallies to help his campaign.

Gus Gusler, a longtime friends and one of the candidate's top fund raisers in 2004, said he thinks Edwards is in a much better position this time to win the Democratic nomination for president because he's more of a household name and people know where he stands on issues.

"Instead of going away, he took the things he talked about in the 2004 election and started doing it -- the whole thing with the poverty center, working on minimum wage and college education and things," Gusler said.

He is joining what could be a crowded field for the Democratic nomination, including potential heavyweights Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama, but he said he welcomed the competition.

"We need the best people running for president because we need leaders," he said.