- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 16, 2008

Scarred by an extramarital affair and weakened by two failed presidential campaigns, Democrat John Edwards is pushing to return to the national political stage by championing an issue he once owned: a crusade to end poverty.

With the 2008 presidential campaign safely over, the Southern populist emerged again this past week, testing the waters in two events that provided him publicity without scrutiny. How he’ll make his voice heard is yet to be seen - he faces fighting for his signature cause outside of elected office, and without many political allies.

“It’s probably premature to try and figure out how all of that plays out, but I do know that the work he’s done and the beliefs he has for addressing poverty are very important and shouldn’t be completely overshadowed,” said John Moylan, a South Carolina attorney who is a friend of Mr. Edwards. “We’ll see him continuing that very important work.”

In his speeches, Mr. Edwards pushed the same themes he did on the campaign trail, speaking about “Two Americas” and an economic divide that requires health care changes and global cooperation to combat. But he avoided questions from reporters, and took only pre-screened questions at a speech in Indiana. A moderator at a debate in California even tried to declare it an off-the-record event.

Mr. Edwards had not spoken publicly since early August, when he acknowledged a past affair with a woman hired to produce videos of him as he plotted a presidential bid in 2006. He sought sanctuary in the aftermath, canceling all appearances in what he said was an effort to avoid distracting from Barack Obama’s bid for the White House.

Once considered a top pick for a high-profile position in the president-elect’s administration, the former North Carolina senator must try to push his way back into the national political dialogue from the fringe. While Mr. Obama praised Mr. Edwards in early campaign visits to North Carolina, he distanced himself after Mr. Edwards admitted to the affair, never mentioning his name in the campaign’s final stops.

Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who helped former President Bill Clinton through his cheating scandal, suspected Mr. Edwards might be able to make a public return in a couple of years because the memory of the affair may quickly fade.

“A year in politics is like a dog year,” Mr. Lehane said. “You’re not talking about something that’s going to happen in a week or two weeks or a couple months. This has to be a protracted program with a long-term strategy. But he certainly has the skill sets, the talents and the communication skills to have an effective comeback.”

Mr. Edwards, who wore a wedding band during his recent appearances, so far has kept his talks limited to policy and current events, giving no hint of the turmoil in his personal life. His speech in Indiana drew strong applause throughout the night. His appearance in California was welcomed by about 1,000 people attending a conference.

There are a number of reasons Mr. Edwards might expect people not to show up for his appearances. But he’s still a curiosity and still respected for his views by anti-poverty advocates and some voters. Mr. Edwards said in Indiana he would like to continue working, inside politics or out of it, for those struggling in poverty.

“He’s doing OK,” Mr. Moylan said. “The family’s working through issues, and he’s continuing to look at the ways he can continue to fight what’s important to him.”

Between his 2004 and 2008 presidential campaigns, Mr. Edwards sought work by helping establish a center on poverty at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also created two nonprofit entities that helped him travel the country speaking on the subject and provided a lifeline for one high school’s students to pay for college.

David McLennan, a professor of communications and political science at Peace College in Raleigh who has been following Mr. Edwards’ return, said it would be “very unlikely” to see Mr. Edwards make a political comeback. Mr. McLennan said Mr. Edwards will need a long time to prove himself as someone who can be trusted. Part of that comeback may need to involve an ongoing public discussion about the affair and his marriage.

“By not answering questions, he’s creating this perception that there’s a lot more left to hide,” Mr. McLennan said. “So, if he really wants to put this behind him, he’s got to be a lot more honest and open - or at least just address the questions.”

That’s something, however, that Mr. Edwards has said he won’t talk about again.

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