WASHINGTON—Fresh from his first-place showing among possible presidential contenders in a poll of Iowa Democrats, former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., spoke Thursday to a roomful of pundits and national reporters, road-testing the big themes he hopes to ride into the White House in 2008.
His biggest: Eliminate poverty in the United States by 2036.
Edwards, who heads the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has made no secret of his itch to run for president again as long as his wife's health holds out.
His wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer in late 2004. John Edwards said Thursday that she was now cancer-free.
"We had a whole group of tests about three weeks ago and the doctor said they were all great results," he reported. "The doctor said she does not have cancer."
Edwards, the Democrats' 2004 vice presidential candidate and a former one-term U.S. senator from North Carolina, finished first earlier this month in a Des Moines Register poll of Iowa voters who are likely participants in the state's 2008 Democratic caucuses.
He was favored for the 2008 presidential nomination by 30 percent. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., finished second with 26 percent, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., third with 12 percent. Iowa will vote first in the Democrats' presidential nomination process in 2008.
In his speech before the National Press Club to about 150 people, Edwards covered several issues, proposing an immediate pullout of 40,000 U.S. troops from Iraq and calling for a bolder Democratic Party, one with "big ideas and backbone."
But mostly he talked about setting a national goal to eradicate poverty over the next 30 years. He proposes to end it not with a rehash of the "Great Society," President Lyndon Johnson's string of federal programs in the 1960s, but by ushering in what Edwards called his "Working Society."
"This is all about creating tools that would allow people to be able to help themselves," Edwards said.
Among the tools he called for:
_A minimum wage bump to at least $7.50 an hour.
_One million new housing vouchers to allow poor families to "vote with their feet" by moving to better neighborhoods with good schools.
_One million "stepping stone" jobs in parks and community centers for people who can't find work.
_"Second chance" schools, possibly at community colleges, that would help high school dropouts who want to get back on track.
_"A real chance" for all workers—especially low-paid service workers in hotels and elsewhere—to organize labor unions.
He said helping the poor wouldn't be a one-way street; they'd be expected to work and to be responsible parents.
All this would cost taxpayers nearly $20 billion a year, Edwards said. He'd pay for it by repealing some of President Bush's tax cuts, keeping the estate tax—which hits rich families—and cutting 1,500 jobs as part of "radical reform" of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The public's response to Hurricane Katrina proved, Edwards said, that the American people care about poverty, even if Washington doesn't.
In another phrase that's likely to show up in future campaign speeches, Edwards said the American people were "hungry to be inspired again" and would respond if the next president asked them to sacrifice—by, for example, driving more fuel-efficient cars.
"The country is just waiting for someone to ask" for sacrifice, he said.
Charlie Cook, the editor of the Cook Political Report, a respected independent political journal, said he gave Edwards' speech "a solid B or B plus." He suggested that Edwards is trying to stake out an issue and an identity that will distinguish him from others in what will be a crowded Democratic field in 2008.
"He came out of 2004 with a lot of residual good will (among voters) . . . ," Cook said. "Now he seems to be carving out a position of sort of a hybrid between populism and liberal."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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