January 30, 2008 / 11:08 PM / 12 years ago

Edwards bid shows poverty not big campaign theme

By Matthew Bigg

ATLANTA, Jan 30 (Reuters) - The inability of John Edwards to gain traction in his bid for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination indicates that fighting poverty in America has limited appeal for voters.

Edwards told audiences it was "the issue of my life." But he dropped out of the race on Wednesday because too few responded to his anger at inequality, his heart-rending stories of suffering and his passion about combating corporate greed.

"These are not issues that generate a lot of votes or poll particularly well," said Mari Culver, wife of Iowa’s Democratic Gov. Chet Culver and a tireless campaigner for Edwards in her home state.

Critics called the former senator a hypocrite last summer for getting a $400 haircut and building a large house, but by the end of his campaign many advocates for the poor praised his dedication to the issue.

Edwards came second in Iowa’s caucuses but saw his rivals Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama use some of his best lines, eat into his voting base and weave his issues into larger themes more attractive to Democrats, analysts said.

Nowhere was that clearer than in post-hurricane New Orleans where Edwards launched and ended his campaign, said Louisiana pollster Bernie Pinsonat. The city, devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was a perfect example of the case that Washington fails to provide economic justice.

But even in New Orleans, poverty was not a vote winner because the celebrity of Obama and Clinton made Edwards a third choice even for storm sufferers and voters elsewhere in Louisiana were suspicious of how the city’s government used its resources.

"His whole campaign was based on a strategy of helping the poor. When Obama got in it was a flawed strategy because in South Carolina and in New Orleans (black) voters were not going to vote for him," said Pinsonat of Southern Media and Opinion.


Given that 47 million U.S. citizens lack health insurance and there is a vast gulf in incomes between the richest and poorest Americans one might expect social equality would be a priority for many voters.

But a Pew Research Center survey this month showed "dealing with the problems of the poor" ranks 13th on a list of domestic priorities for voters, a position that has held steady for years and did not change much even in the wake of Katrina.

People express their concern about poverty through voluntary giving and remain suspicious about the effectiveness of government programs, said Michael Dimmock, the Pew Center’s associate director.

And a stark difference of opinion remains on the causes of poverty. Many say that America’s offer of opportunity allows anyone with a strong work ethic to climb out of poverty. Government therefore should not redress problems caused by irresponsible behavior.

As he bowed out, Edwards said Obama and Clinton had pledged to put ending poverty central to their campaigns. Yet in his speech he chastised the party for its failure on the issue.

"I don’t know when our party began to turn away from the cause of working people," said Edwards. "In this campaign we ... looked them square in the eye and we said: ‘We see you, we hear you and we will never forget you.’"

Some commentators dismissed the electoral viability of the campaign message as out of step with the educated, middle class voters at the core of the Democratic party.

"Populism isn’t going to be effective because it doesn’t create jobs. It makes economic development harder because it scares investment away and most voters know that," said politics professor Merle Black of Emory University in Atlanta.

"It’s Great Depression economics at the start of the 21st century," he said. (Editing by Philip Barbara)

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