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Edwards plays up his Southern charm

There's something about Southerners campaigning among Northerners that causes those Yankees just to melt. John Edwards, the surprise second-place finisher in Iowa, has been sweet-talkin' the locals here in New Hampshire, too.

Part of the reason for Southern effectiveness, I think, is condescension: Northerners are inordinately impressed when a Southerner can finish a sentence without tobacco spittle running down his chin. Another reason is gratitude: Northerners, expecting to hear an accent such as that of Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, are unduly happy when they can understand what a Southerner is saying.

Amid all this cross-cultural cluelessness, a Southerner who can play the "Dixie card" gets extra credit for being "brave" enough to talk about race. Here, at a Unitarian Church in this chilly seacoast town, Edwards told a lily-white audience, "They say I shouldn't talk about race." The North Carolina senator never bothered to identify "they," leaving his listeners to imagine that some cynical political boss somewhere was threatening him with doom if he mentioned civil rights.

Having set up this strawiest of straw men, Edwards then knocked it over: "We should not only talk about race," he thundered, "we have a moral responsibility to talk about race." The crowd cheered; nobody seemed to notice that Edwards never did, in fact, say anything about race _ other than that he would talk about it.

To me, the senator is one part Andy of Mayberry, full of charming cornpone; one part evangelist, pitching himself instead of the Lord; and one part country-boy-cunning lawyer from a John Grisham novel. Of course, Edwards is a country-boy-cunning lawyer. He made millions collecting contingency fees. But he spins it differently. In his telling, he has always been "fighting" for regular folks: "I would go into courtrooms representing you, and people just like you, in battles against insurance companies and big corporations . . . And I beat 'em."

And what, exactly, is the connection between being a trial lawyer and being president? Well, that's obvious _ both jobs require, at least as Edwards sees it, a high degree of what might politely be called blarney spiel. What else could one make of a man who says he should be in the White House "because I believe in you, and you deserve a president who actually believes in you"?

Edwards is a smooth-talking contradiction _ a millionaire populist. He's so smooth that Granite Staters might not notice the illogic in his message, at least from a Democratic point of view. "Twenty years ago, most middle-class families were working, saving money," he said, in alleged contrast to today, when families are living "paycheck to paycheck."

But hold on a second here: 20 years ago was 1984, which was midway in the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Was the Gipper really responsible for a lost golden age? And if things were so great under Reagan, then what happened since? Wasn't Bill Clinton president for eight of the intervening 20 years?

Those questions were on my mind at a brief Edwards "press availability" after his speech. Nor was I alone in my curiosity, as another reporter asked the question before me.

Edwards' answer was as evasive as a moonshiner at midnight. The senator said he didn't want to go back 20 years to the Reagan era, but rather, 30 years, to a time when "America was respected." In other words, he suddenly shifted his time reference, and also his policy-pivot, from domestic to foreign. But, it was another Republican, Richard Nixon, who was president in 1974; is "Tricky Dick" Edwards' ideal? And then _ the candidate was gone, disappearing into his traveling bus.

This combination of slow-talking and fast-shuffling succeeded in getting Southerners Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton into the White House _ so why not Edwards?

But regardless of where he finished here Tuesday, the North Carolinian seems certain to beat out Wesley Clark of Arkansas for the Veepstakes _ that is, to be the Southerner on the presidential ticket underneath a Yankee, such as, say, John Kerry. Many think that Edwards has had his eye on the second prize all along. He won't admit it, of course, but then what smart country lawyer ever tips his true hand _ especially to a bunch of Yankees?

+ James P. Pinkerton is a Newsday columnist. +

Special to Newsday; distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service