RALEIGH, N.C. — Former Sen. John Edwards has a deadline to save his spot on the national stage.
With two weeks to go before their national convention, a number of Democrats are saying that Edwards needs to publicly address National Enquirer stories that have alleged he had an affair with a campaign worker and fathered her baby.
If Edwards fails to clear up the story in short order, he risks party officials deciding not to have him speak or, if they do, creating a distraction from a week focused on Barack Obama accepting the nomination.
"If there is not an explanation that’s satisfactory, acceptable and meets high moral standards, the answer is 'no,' he would not be a prime candidate to make a major address to the convention," said Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chair.
Democrats gather in Denver on Aug. 25 and Edwards, as the 2004 vice presidential nominee and a presidential candidate who won delegates this year, ordinarily would be locked in as a speaker.
"He absolutely does have to (resolve it). If it's not true, he has to issue a stronger denial," said Gary Pearce, the Democratic strategist who ran Edwards’ 1998 Senate race. "It's a very damaging thing. …
"The big media has tried to be responsible and handle this with kid gloves, but it's clearly getting ready to bust out. If it's not true, he's got to stand up and say, 'This is not true. That is not my child and I'm going to take legal action against the people who are spreading these lies.' It's not enough to say, 'That’s tabloid trash,' " Pearce said.
Edwards is widely regarded as a rousing speaker, particularly on poverty, and still has as many as 19 delegates pledged to him, making him a logical choice for a high-profile convention role under normal circumstances.
Convention organizers said Wednesday that the schedule of speakers has not yet been announced.
Edwards' political currency declines with each day the story goes unresolved, Fowler and other Democratic strategists said.
An appearance at the convention would only highlight the unresolved story, said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore. A convention speaking appearance could become the moment that drives news media coverage of the alleged affair to explode.
"You want to address these issues long before you get to that point," Lehane said. "Otherwise people who haven’t written about it before, now start writing about it." Edwards' decision not to take questions about the alleged affair has allowed doubts to linger and political bloggers to speculate. The National Enquirer has reported that he fathered a child with a former campaign worker and met with her in a Beverly Hills hotel last month. He made no response to the National Enquirer’s posting on Wednesday of what it said was a photo of Edwards and his illegitimate child. Two weeks ago, after the National Enquirer ran the story about the hotel liaison, he dismissed a reporter’s question in Houston and used the "tabloid trash" line.
He brushed off a McClatchy reporter in Washington last week: "Can't do it now, I'm sorry."
His designated staffer for press contacts has not responded to e-mail requests for an interview.
No one answered a reporter who rang a buzzer at the gate of Edwards' Orange County home on Wednesday.
Friends and former staffers refuse to comment now, though they helped Edwards last fall by dismissing an October story in the Enquirer of a sexual relationship between Edwards and a campaign videographer when it initially broke.
"Sorry cannot help you on this one," wrote Jennifer Palmieri, a former top Edwards aide, in an e-mail Wednesday.
The Enquirer's October story, citing unnamed sources, claimed that Edwards was having an affair with a woman who had filmed a series of videos during his presidential campaign. The tabloid later reported that she was pregnant.
Two weeks ago, the tabloid posted a story online chronicling how Edwards had visited the woman, Rielle Hunter, and their child on July 21 at a Beverly Hills hotel and that the paper’s reporters confronted him afterward.
Hunter posted an online statement at the time denying the October story. In December, a campaign worker for Edwards, Andrew Young, claimed paternity of the woman’s then-unborn child. Last week, though, the Charlotte Observer obtained a copy of the child's birth certificate, which did not list the father. Hunter's lawyer would say only that "a lot of women do that" and that it was a personal matter between Hunter and Young.
Presidential candidates who lose in the primaries traditionally are invited to address their party's convention. Politico reported last month that Edwards told others he was promised a prime time speaking slot when he endorsed Sen. Barack Obama.
(Johnson reports for The Charlotte Observer. McClatchy reporters Lorenzo Perez and Lisa Zagaroli contributed to this story.)