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Edwards Jumps Into Race For Democratic Presidential Nomination

Posted January 3, 2003 7:15 a.m. EST

— Sen. John Edwards, a multimillionaire trial lawyer from the South and relative newcomer to Washington, announces he will seek the Democratic presidential nomination, saying he wants to be "a champion for regular people."

Edwards chose an appearance on NBC's "Today" program to say he was setting up an exploratory committee with an eye to getting into the 2004 race. He joins Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in a contest which has become more spirited in the wake of former Vice President Al Gore's decision not to run in 2004.

Edwards' announcement came as no surprise since the first-term senator began moving quickly into position in the last several weeks. He gave a major address in Washington in mid-December, speaking out against President Bush's tax-cut policy and saying the nation needed a new intelligence agency.

Edwards said he will offer a dramatic alternative to President Bush's White House as somebody who comes from a humble background, whose father worked in a North Carolina textile mill, and who understands the needs of ordinary people.

"The president has a different kind of administration that is run to a large extent by insiders and for insiders," Edwards said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press following his NBC appearance. "We need to give the American people that choice," he said.

Edwards said he doesn't think his relatively short time in Washington will be a disadvantage and could actually prove beneficial because he feels closer to the needs of ordinary citizens like those in his home state.

"I'm more than happy to be judged on the basis of my ideas," said Edwards, adding that when people are considering "leadership in a time like this, the things that you look for are a clear view of America's role in the world, strength of conviction, good judgment and a willingness to ask hard questions."

At a news conference later Thursday in Raleigh, Edwards continued to emphasize his humble beginnings, saying he presents a stark contrast with other candidates both Democrat and Republican.

"If the American people want a lifelong politician in the White House, that's not me," he said.

He said he believes Americans "are waiting for, are hungry for" someone with a vision for the country that differs from that of the Bush administration. "I would say I have exactly the kind of experience we need in the White House," he said, once again describing himself as someone who's close the regular people.

The 49-year-old senator said he will spend the next couple of days talking publicly about his political plans. He also said he will be talking to the people of North Carolina about why he's pursuing the presidency and asking for their ideas on top priorities that should be mentioned in a national race. State polls have suggested the public is lukewarm about Edwards' presidential ambitions.

While Edwards said it was important for the Democratic presidential field to have a Southern voice, he quickly added "the most important thing is for the campaign to focus on what's good for regular people."

His background as a trial lawyer should help his effort, not hurt it, Edwards said.

"I'm very proud of what I spent my life doing," he told NBC. "I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, my job was to give them a fair shake."

On Wednesday, Edwards revealed his plans to some 200 friends and supporters invited to his home in North Carolina.

Asked why voters should support him, Edwards told NBC, "Because I will be a champion for regular people in the White House every day."

Edwards said he will traveling around his home state to let voters there know why he is exploring a national candidacy, but did not say he's decided whether he will run for the Senate in 2004.

"I'm running for president, I'm setting up this campaign to run for president," said the senator, who added that "I'll make the decision later what to do about my Senate seat."

Edwards invited nearly 200 guests to his home to tell them what he was about to tell the world - that he plans to seek the presidency in 2004.

The first-term senator from North Carolina told guests at a New Year's Day party that he would form an exploratory committee for a presidential run, said Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. solicitor general who attended.

Guests at the party Wednesday said Edwards indicated his campaign would focus on civil rights issues.

As Edwards spoke to his guests, a loud cheer went up. In addition to interest on the part of Daschle, Gephardt and Lieberman, Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has indicated he will decide this month whether to run.

Edwards is "the only real Southerner, he's a new face and he doesn't have any baggage," said Rufus Edmisten, a former North Carolina secretary of state and attorney general who attended the party Wednesday.

Edwards has spent months making the rounds at Democratic functions in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere.

The son of a textile mill employee, Edwards was born in South Carolina and spent his teenage years in Robbins, N.C. He became a successful lawyer in Raleigh, winning personal injury cases against big companies and amassing a fortune of $14 million.

"John Edwards is running for president to give Americans a choice. He's going to stand up for regular people while the Bush administration will stand up for the wealthy and the influential," said Walter Dellinger, a former U.S. solicitor general who teaches law at Duke University.

Wednesday, Edwards told reporters outside his house that his family has been uppermost in his mind as he considered whether to run.

"I've been thinking about North Carolina and the nation and what effect it's going to have on my family," he said as his two youngest children clung to his hands. "There is nothing more important in the world to me than my family."