WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ask corporate lobbyists which presidential contender is most feared by their clients and the answer is almost always the same -- Democrat John Edwards.
The former North Carolina senator's chosen profession alone raises the hackles of business people. Before entering politics, he made a fortune as a trial lawyer.
In litigious America, trial lawyers bring lawsuits against companies on behalf of aggrieved individuals and sometimes win multimillion-dollar settlements. Edwards won several.
But beyond his profession, Edwards' tone and language on the campaign trail have increased business antipathy toward him. His stump speeches are peppered with attacks on "corporate greed" and warnings of "the destruction of the middle class."
He accuses lobbyists of "corrupting the government" and says Americans lack universal health care because of "drug companies, insurance companies and their lobbyists."
Despite not winning the two state nominating contests completed so far, with 48 to go, Edwards insists he is in the race to stay. An Edwards campaign spokesman said on Thursday that inside-the-Beltway operatives who fight to defend the powerful and the privileged should be afraid.
"The lobbyists and special interests who abuse the system in Washington have good reason to fear John Edwards.
"Once he is president, the interests of middle class families will never again take a back seat to corporate greed in Washington," said campaign spokesman Eric Schultz.
Open attacks on the business elite are seldom heard from mainstream White House candidates in America, despite skyrocketing CEO pay, rising income inequality, and a torrent of scandals in corporate boardrooms and on Wall Street.
But this year Edwards is not alone. Republican candidate Mike Huckabee, former governor of Arkansas, sometimes also rails against corporate power and influence, tapping a populist current that lies just below the surface of U.S. politics.
One business lobbyist, who asked not to be named, said Edwards "has gone to this angry populist, anti-business rhetoric that borders on class warfare ... He focuses dislike of special interests, which is out there, on business."
Another lobbyist said an Edwards presidency would be "a disaster" for his well-heeled industrialist clients.
After this week's New Hampshire primaries, where he placed a distant third behind New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Edwards might not seem so scary. He ran second in the Iowa Democratic caucuses last week, trailing Obama and just ahead of Clinton.
Edwards suffered a blow on Thursday when Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry snubbed him and endorsed Obama. Edwards was Kerry's vice-presidential running mate in Kerry's failed Democratic bid for the White House in 2004.
Asked which candidate their clients most support, corporate lobbyists were unsure. Clinton has cautious backing within the corporate jet set, as do Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and former Republican Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, they said.
These candidates represent stability to executives who have much to lose if November's election brings about the sweeping change some candidates are promising.
Obama and Huckabee register largely as unknown quantities among business owners, both large and small, say lobbyists.
"My sense is that Obama would govern as a reasonably pragmatic Democrat ... I think Hillary is approachable. She knows where a lot of her funding has come from, to be blunt," said Greg Valliere, chief political strategist at Stanford Group Co., a market and policy analysis group.
But Edwards, Valliere said, is seen as "an anti-business populist" and "a trade protectionist who is quite unabashed about raising taxes."
"I think his regulatory policies, as well as his tax policies, would be viewed as a threat to business," he said.
"The next scariest for business would be Huckabee because of his rhetoric and because he's an unknown."
Reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh; editing by John Wallace