When John Edwards takes the national stage to debate Vice President Dick Cheney on Oct. 5, he is sure to relish talking about Robbins, N.C., the blue-collar mill town where he grew up.
Though many things have changed, Robbins' Southern, small-town atmosphere remains: Old men in worn overalls and mesh caps eat fried chicken in the Little Village restaurant on Main Street. Street lamps line the two blocks of downtown bearing red, white, and blue banners reading: "Robbins: Hometown, USA."
The rural town, population 1,200, is the place where Mr. Edwards says he learned values, and where his political identity was shaped. He campaigns on Robbins, saying he can identify with "regular Americans." But while Mr. Edwards can't seem to say enough about the town, his hometown-and his home state-are less enthusiastic about him.
Mr. Edwards won Robbins by 127 votes in a narrow Senate victory in 1998. He did not win the majority of votes in Moore County, where he grew up, in that race, his first for the Senate. Further, despite his appointment to the Kerry ticket, polls show President Bush will likely carry North Carolina in November by at least 6 percentage points (he won North Carolina in 2000 by 13 points).
What's more intriguing here is whether Mr. Edwards would have won his Senate seat again had he not been elevated to the national ticket.
Mr. Edwards campaigned for the Senate six years ago as a moderate, denying that he would "cancel out" then-Senator Jesse Helms's conservative votes. But Mr. Edwards went on to vote along liberal lines: He voted against the partial-birth abortion ban, against the Victims of Unborn Violence Act, and against confirming many of President Bush's judicial nominees. The American Conservative Union, a conservative lobbying organization, gives Mr. Edwards a lifetime rating of 12 on a scale of 100. Americans for Democratic Action, its liberal counterpart, gives the senator a rating of 81.
The senator's track record in the courtroom is also controversial in his home state. Mr. Edwards won 61 malpractice suits during his 20-year career as a trial lawyer, according to Lawyers Weekly, with awards totaling $110.4 million. The winning clients clearly had suffered, but many physicians say that Mr. Edwards cast blame incorrectly or played on emotions to gain multimillion-dollar verdicts. Those verdicts in turn contributed to skyrocketing malpractice insurance premiums that raise the cost of healthcare nationwide.
One of Mr. Edwards's most noted victories was a 1997 case in which a jury awarded $23 million to a family whose child was born with cerebral palsy. He went on to win dozens of similar cases, despite mounting evidence, according to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, that casts serious doubt on whether birth and delivery could cause cerebral palsy.
If Mr. Edwards's malpractice suits were big on dollars, they were small on the role of personal responsibility. In 1994 he won a lawsuit against a doctor who failed to diagnose prostate cancer, even though the patient apparently missed several follow-up appointments.
In 1991, a jury awarded a $2.2 million verdict to the family of a woman who killed herself in a hospital several days after she was taken off suicide watch. Mr. Edwards argued the hospital was at fault.
The American Medical Association says such malpractice suits are contributing to a healthcare crisis. The threat of lawsuits has driven malpractice insurance rates to an all-time high and has driven doctors out of practice.
But capping noneconomic damages in malpractice suits is not one of Mr. Edwards's goals. In 2002 he helped block a Senate bill that would have put dollar limits on damages for pain and suffering. Many physicians said the bill would have made insurance more affordable and kept doctors in practice, and that without legislation hundreds of thousands of patients will be less likely to receive good healthcare.
Craig VanDerVeer, a neurosurgeon in Charlotte, N.C., says the 16 neurosurgeons in his office pay a total of $3 million a year for malpractice insurance-thanks in part to Mr. Edwards's courtroom victories.
Those verdicts aren't likely to be on trial in the Cheney-Edwards face-off. But the Democratic vice presidential candidate's formidable courtroom style is likely to turn the second-tier debates into a first-rate confrontation.