PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — While other Democrats slammed one another in the 2004 primaries, John Edwards took pride in staying above the fray.
"If you're looking for the candidate that will do the best job of attacking the other Democrats, I'm not your guy," he told audiences in Iowa and elsewhere.
Now Edwards is the Democrat who's flaring the sharpest elbows, and not just at the Bush administration.
At a candidate debate Tuesday night in Philadelphia, he pounded rival Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York over what he characterized as her "double talk" on everything from the Iraq war to a New York state proposal to issue driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
"The American people deserve a president of the United States that they know will tell them the truth and won't say one thing one time and something different at a different time," the former North Carolina senator said.
As polls show Clinton expanding her lead across the country, as well as in early-contest states, Edwards, 54, has emerged as her sharpest Democratic critic. He's questioned her sincerity as well as her policy positions. On Tuesday, the former trial lawyer jabbed harder at her than other Democrats did, including Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who's consistently second to her in polls.
Campaigning in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Edwards defended his tougher tack.
"Senator Clinton is totally entitled to her own view, and she's entitled to vote exactly the way she chooses," he said. "But when I disagree with her, what am I going to do? Put a sock in my mouth and say, 'Oh, I'm not going to say anything about what she did?' "
That hard edge was largely absent from his 2004 campaign.
Then, he watched rivals Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt pound each other in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses — and lose favor with voters in the process.
"The sense of (Edwards) before was, 'He's a fresh face. He's the one not attacking everybody else; he's a nice guy,' " said Steffen Schmidt, a political scientist at Iowa State University. "Edwards is not Mr. Positive and Mr. Upbeat anymore."
Clinton's campaign happily notes the contrast. Spokesman Mo Elleithee on Wednesday called Edwards "a desperate candidate resorting to attack politics."
"Four years ago, John Edwards did very well as a candidate in large part because he talked about a new kind of politics, an optimistic politics," he said. "This time around, his campaign seems to be stalling and his reaction is to go on the attack."
"That's what people say when you tell the truth," Edwards said in Peterborough. "They always look to talk about politics instead of the facts of what is happening."
Edwards' campaign says his jabs at Clinton have been largely over policy differences. He's been particularly outspoken over her vote for a Bush administration proposal to declare Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and her claim to be the candidate who best represents change in Washington.
"Will she be the person who brings about the change in this country?" he said in the debate. "You know, I believe in Santa Claus. I believe in the tooth fairy. But I don't think that's going to happen."
Arnie Arneson, who hosts a New Hampshire TV show called "Political Chowder," said some voters were having trouble with what they saw as the "angrier" tone of Edwards' campaign. Edwards has criticized not just Clinton but also corporate America and even the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"People are just questioning him this time," she said. "He was this sunny guy last time. Now he's the angry guy. What will he be four years from now? The funny guy?"
Edwards' pollster Harrison Hickman disputes suggestions that his candidate is angry or even negative.
"The reality is, four years ago he also talked about how he differed with other candidates in terms of policies," Hickman said. "Last time he had to spend a lot more time introducing himself This time he doesn't have that burden."
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines, said comparisons with 2004 missed an important point. He said Edwards' tough tone was fair.
"Times and circumstances change," he said. "There's a difference between a tough campaign and a negative campaign and being nasty or dirty. And that's being manipulative (or) spreading half-truths."
Edwards "certainly has got to do something to shake up the race that a lot of the big blowhards want to say is over already," Goldford said.
(Morrill and Johnson report for The Charlotte Observer.)