Washington taking a shine to rising star Sen. Edwards

WASHINGTON — From Union Station’s newsstands to the city’s corner drugstores, John Edwards’ face stares out at Washingtonians from the cover of Capital Style magazine, so large that his senatorial pores can be counted like beans.

“Building the Perfect Senator,” the headline reads. “John Edwards is rich and rugged. But is he ready?”

The answer is, he’d better be. North Carolina’s freshman senator has yet to speak a single word from the well of the Senate on a piece of legislation, but no matter. From his profile in the glossy city magazine to his role in the impeachment proceedings of President Clinton, the former Raleigh trial lawyer has struck a positive chord with official Washington.

“If I were Edwards at this point, I’d be feeling pretty good,” said political analyst Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “He didn’t come in here with a family political legacy like Evan Bayh, and often that can establish a reputation right away in Washington. He hasn’t needed it. He’s clearly been tabbed as a comer by the Democratic leadership.”

Edwards’ selection by Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., earlier this month to preside over the deposition of Monica Lewinsky for the Democrats created a stir among those taking the pulse of the new Congress. John Aldrich, a Duke University political science professor, said the decision was crafted so Edwards could prove his mettle.

“The leadership did this as a way to give him the room to show it’s worth their while to groom him for bigger things, to give him chances — even more so for him, because he has no roots as a politician,” Aldrich said.

But Ornstein said this was not a case of political maneuvering.

“With the stakes that high, they’re not going to just take him for a test drive on something like impeachment,” Ornstein said. “That was a clear signal.”

Congressional colleagues also have noticed Edwards’ early panache. Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill, said his young counterpart on the Hill has unlimited potential.

“My impression is that he’s distinguishing himself very quickly,” said Price, who has seen a number of rookies march up the Capitol steps since he came to Washington in 1986. “He’s an experienced lawyer. It’s hard to imagine anybody being more qualified.”

Even before Edwards was chosen to preside over the deposition, propelling him into the headlines in a way few freshman senators have ever experienced, Capital Style editors knew he’d be newsworthy.

“We were looking for a way to cover the new Congress, to capture the dynamic at work in the elections,” said editor Bill Thomas. “Edwards represented this new idea of campaigning in that he sold himself to voters who were rejecting the strident, in-your-face, screaming, yelling, inside-the-Beltway types. The way he approached his campaign helped us talk about him in terms of ‘How do you build a better senator for this particular time?’

“Plus,” said Thomas, “we knew we needed someone with cover-boy good looks.”

Indeed, writer Susan Crabtree, who wrote the cover story on Edwards that follows him during his transition from election-winner to senator, said his distinction from Republican opponent Lauch Faircloth, whom he narrowly defeated, was obvious.

“John has teeth and all this hair,” she said. “He was much more personable and engaging than his counterpart, and he has all this Southern charm. People are fascinated by those qualities.”

But by the time the February issue of the publication hit the newsstands, Edwards was more than just a telegenic face. He was a full-fledged senator in the midst of a decision that would end a 13-month scandal fixation. Although considered an outsider, Crabtree said, he has seemed less scripted and stiff recently than he did in the weeks after the election, appearing confident and in his element in Washington social circles.

“If you think about it,” Crabtree said, “here is a guy who was used to working at night and spending long hours in the office a lot. There were moments when he came across as a little fed up with all the publicity and the media attention and the time constraints that he had.

“Since then, he’s seemed calmer, more congenial. He needs time to get comfortable.”

`Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed’

Aldrich said Edwards might be better advised to keep fidgeting a little. His most powerful intangible is that he carries himself more like the son of a textile worker from Robbins than a ready-made politician, he said.

“While he is good-looking and stylish and presents himself well, and has just the right amount of accent, he doesn’t seem like a high-powered lawyer or a high-intensity politician,” Aldrich said. “He’s sort of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” similar to Rep. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.

Graham, 48, is, like Edwards, a member of the Hill’s youth patrol and played a significant role in the impeachment trial as one of the House managers. The similarities may end there, though, according to Ornstein, who said Edwards is more disciplined than Graham. Lilting speech and good looks are plentiful in the Senate, he warned, and can only take you so far, no matter how many magazine covers you appear on.

“You still have to build a niche within the Senate, learn how to work inside committees, learn when to speak and when not to speak,” said Ornstein, who said only Bayh of Indiana was making as big a splash as Edwards among new senators.

“One of the models to follow for someone like Edwards is Bill Bradley,” he said. “He didn’t start his campaign with a reputation as a politician. But he worked well on committees, worked hard behind the scenes, and pretty soon, people were saying that the guy was really good, that he was one to watch.”

Edwards’ senatorial personality will more clearly emerge when the Senate gets down to substantive business starting Monday, he said.

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: February 21, 1999 Page: B1 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company