- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

Some Republican strategists are reluctant to criticize Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards too harshly for spending his career as a personal-injury lawyer, though polls show the majority of Americans support tort reform.

Many remember Mr. Edwards’ first campaign, in which he toppled a sitting senator — Lauch Faircloth, a Republican hog farmer from North Carolina — who spent a lot of money attacking Mr. Edwards for making millions from personal-injury lawsuits.

“Every time we talked about it, he’d bring out one of his clients who was some victim in a terrible tragedy,” said one Republican who worked on that 1998 campaign. Many of those clients are children or the parents of children who were horribly maimed or killed.

President Bush, who does not shy away from noting Mr. Edwards’ career on the stump, got a dose of the counterattack strategy during a visit to Mr. Edwards’ home state of North Carolina in 2002.

Mr. Bush went to High Point to call for a $250,000 cap on noneconomic damages in medical-malpractice suits.

“What we want is quality health care, not rich lawyers,” he said during a campaign tour to help Elizabeth Dole win her seat in the Senate. “Higher and higher insurance premiums make it nearly impossible for a lot of doctors to practice medicine.”

He timed his visit with the release of a report by the Bush administration that cited clients of Mr. Edwards as having won “the litigation lottery” with a $23 million verdict.

Mr. Edwards arranged a conference call for reporters with the parents of Bailey Griffin, who eventually died after suffering from cerebral palsy.

“What I heard was in some ways we’re considered to be lottery winners,” Christopher Griffin said. “Every time I go to my daughter’s grave, it’s hard to feel that way.”

Another concern for Republicans is that such criticism would allow Mr. Edwards to deliver some of the most popular lines from his stump speeches about how he’s proud of his career because he helped the average person stand up against big insurance companies.

And then there’s the Republicans’ Senate candidate from Florida — Mel Martinez, a trial lawyer whose firm handled many personal-injury lawsuits, such as auto accidents and slip-and-fall cases. He also is a member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum, a club of lawyers who have won settlements or verdicts of $1 million or more in lawsuits.

Mr. Martinez has seen his career become an issue in the Republican primary.

At a debate earlier this month, Republican businessman Doug Gallagher attacked Mr. Martinez for his firm’s representation of a woman who sued an Orlando Baptist church after she slipped and fell in the fellowship hall. Mr. Gallagher then asked Mr. Martinez to “join Mickey Mouse, Shamu, me and even the Lord himself by finally endorsing a $250,000 cap” on noneconomic damages in medical-malpractice awards.

Mr. Martinez said he supports a $500,000 cap.

“The United States Chamber of Commerce, the number one issue that they have in their agenda is tort reform, and you know who they endorsed? They endorsed me,” Mr. Martinez said. “The entire leadership of our Republican Senate in Washington picked me and endorsed me, because they believe that I will work with them to get sensible tort reform done.”

The problem facing Republicans has not gone unnoticed by Democrats.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has distributed press releases with stories of Republicans attacking Mr. Edwards for his work as a trial lawyer and placing Mr. Martinez’s name in parenthesis behind Mr. Edwards’ name.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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