Political Capital with John Harwood

John Edwards: Is He The New Robert F. Kennedy?

Senator John Edwards

In mimicking Robert F. Kennedy's 1967 tour through impoverished American communities, John Edwards strikes a resonant chord with me. My father covered that Kennedy trip for the Washington Post. A photo from that experience hangs on the wall in the kitchen of my family home. But is he the Bobby Kennedyof the 2008 presidential race?

Certainly the former North Carolina senator would like to be--and with good reason. RFK, in a different way than his brother JFK,has become a mythic Democratic hero. He had an ability to appeal across racial and income lines in ways any thinking Democrat could want to emulate.

Some of the comparisons are apt. John Edwards has drawn flak forhis work with the Fortress Investment Group hedge fundand his $400 haircuts. Kennedy was a rich man too. Notwithstanding our sustained economic growth and booming stock market, poverty rates remain comparable to levels of a generation ago; in the most recent Census Data, from 2005, slightly more than 12 percent of the population is poor. The poverty population has become younger, as Medicare and Social Security have dramatically reduced economic deprivation among the elderly. Poverty among whites has fallen substantially, but they represent a declining proportion of the overall population.

Just as RFK was in his day, Edwards stands widely accused of political opportunism. He likes to say that he's emphasizing poverty issues against the prevailing wisdom of political consultants, since there's little political upside in appealing to the poor when middle class votes and upscale executives' political contributions drive U.S. elections. In fact, there's a very large political benefit in championing the poor among Democratic primary voters.

But Edwards has at least three big problems in trying to replicate Kennedy's political feat. One is that Barack Obama--the first African American candidate with a real shot at becoming president -- is for many voters already filling the RFK roles for many voters of both races. A second is that immigration has made Hispanic voters a growing proportion of the Democratic primary electorate, and so far Hispanic voters have flocked to Hillary Clinton.

The third is that the composition of the Democratic electorate has changed. Many of the blue-collar Democrats Kennedy appealed to are now Republicans, drawn by the GOP's appear on social issues or security concerns. That leaves Democrats more dependent than ever on both the top of the income scale as well as the bottom; Democrats nearly broke even in 2006 among voters earning more than $100,000 a year.

Edwards aims to appeal to both upscale and downscale voters at the same time. Despite his work at Fortress, he led other top Democratic candidates in embracing higher taxes on private equity and hedge fund managers. He's also pushing universal health care and a tougher line on U.S. trade policy. One early sign of the viability of his strategy will come in his third quarter fund-raising.

So far he boasts some loyal allies from American business; wealthy telecommunications executive Leo Hindery is a top economic adviser. Tune in to CNBC's "Street Signs" this afternoon at 2:30, and we'll explore Hindery's assessment of the top populist in the Democratic race.

Fyi: It's good to be back blogging after my vacation. However, I will be out on some family business unitil the end of the week--but new posts will be here next week.

Questions?  Comments?  Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.