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Edwards kicks off campaign with focus on poverty, inequality

NEW ORLEANS—John Edwards began his second quest for president Thursday by calling on the country to address the problems of poverty and inequality in America.

Edwards, 53, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee and a former senator from North Carolina, used a hurricane-ravaged neighborhood in New Orleans as the backdrop for his announcement. The Ninth Ward section of the city is still strewn with boarded-up homes and piles of debris 16 months after the area was flooded by Hurricane Katrina.

"New Orleans in so many ways shows the two Americas that I have talked about in the past," Edwards said.

Edwards said it wasn't just the business of government to rebuild destroyed neighborhoods, although he criticized the Bush administration for doing too little. He said he would use his campaign as a "call to action" to encourage private groups to help those in need in New Orleans and elsewhere. Standing behind Edwards was a group of Baton Rouge, La., students who have been volunteering in New Orleans.

"If you walk around these neighborhoods, what you'll hear is that most of the good that has been done in New Orleans has been done by faith-based groups, charity groups and volunteers," Edwards said.

Edwards also called for universal health care coverage, more opportunities for young people to go to college and beginning the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq while seeking a political solution to the conflict. Edwards said he favors rolling back some of the tax cuts for well-to-do Americans pushed by the Bush administration. He spoke in broad terms, offering few specifics on how he would bring about the changes he proposed.

Edwards begins the Democratic primary trailing New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, according to national polls, even though they haven't declared their candidacy. But Edwards is better known than most of the other Democrats considering the 2008 race.

Edwards left New Orleans for a three-day tour that was to take him through the key primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, before finishing Saturday with a rally near his new 102-acre estate in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The spectacle of a presidential announcement, with its congregation of TV trucks, drew few onlookers because so much of the Ninth Ward has been abandoned. The area looks like a battle zone, with Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers sitting outside half-destroyed homes and neighborhoods patrolled by military police in Humvees.

A half-block away, Michael Knight, a 31-year-old electrician who grew up in the neighborhood that locals called Checkerboard, ignored the hoopla.

"I don't think it makes a big difference to me," Knight said of the Edwards visit. "I really don't see it doing nothing. He's not the first one to come down here."

Edwards, a mill worker's son who became a millionaire trial lawyer, has linked himself to the issue of poverty. He's made three previous trips to New Orleans to help residents with rebuilding projects. During his 2004 campaign, Edwards emphasized his Two Americas theme, highlighting the inequalities in America. In 2005, Edwards created the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He has compared his stance to that of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, who ran for president in 1968.

But addressing poverty, rather than the problems of the struggling middle class, can be tricky politically.

"It's clearly not the main mover of most voters," said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York. "People are interested in the war in Iraq. The question is whether he can talk about the quality of life for Americans as part of the specialized focus on people who are poor."

The last major presidential candidate to focus on poverty was Jesse Jackson in 1988. The so-called "New Democrats" such as Bill Clinton and Al Gore largely wrote off the issue.

"Politically, it's a marginal strategy," said Allan Lichtman, a presidential scholar at American University. "Whether that is going to appeal to the base of the Democratic Party is an interesting question."

Some fellow Democrats wonder whether emphasizing poverty and populism is the way to win the party's nomination.

"He is defining himself as the little people's friend," said Dick Hartpootlian, a former South Carolina Democratic chairman. "That works in the courtroom. I don't think that will work across the country."

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(Christensen reports for The (Raleigh) News & Observer.)

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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