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Starting Gun

Recently, John Edwards stopped being just a senator from North Carolina and started being a presidential candidate. Not that he can admit it yet. But in powwows all over New York, the charismatic young Democrat is testing the waters -- and the party's loyalty to Al Gore.

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John Edwards was in Manhattan last week job-hunting. It's not that he's unemployed: Since 1999, he's been a United States senator from North Carolina. And it's not a question of money: The former civil litigator won more than $152 million for his clients in the nineties alone. So why is the soft-spoken 47-year-old, whom one publication recently christened "the Democrats' New Golden Boy," meeting the elite all over the city? He wants a shot at the Big Job, the presidency. And for a Democratic candidate, the interviews start now, in New York.

Not that Edwards will admit as much -- not yet. On a breezy Sunday-evening stroll down Fifth Avenue, Edwards cheerily maintains that he's just pushing his Senate agenda for HMO reform. "I mean, if you want to make the case for a patients' bill of rights -- and I've been working very hard on that, as you know, with Senator John McCain -- that needs to be done on a nationwide level, not just in North Carolina, although it has a great impact on the people I represent," he says, crossing in front of St. Patrick's (he is an intrepid jaywalker). But his Monday schedule points to something more ambitious: six one-on-one meetings with some of the party's major donors, editorial powwows at Time Inc. and the New York Times, and a dinner for twenty more donors at Primavera on the Upper East Side -- this final event postponed at the last minute so Edwards could make it to a suddenly convened Senate vote.

John Edwards arrived in D.C. a little more than two years ago, having ejected a hog-farming incumbent from his Senate seat. It's no wonder that the vanquished Democrats seized upon him; he has those qualities they are pining for -- youth, vigor, and distance from the Clinton-Gore regime. Edwards is a serious, charismatic moderate who prays. He represents a state that Bush won -- and is friendly with both fellow Tarheel Jesse Helms and liberal icon Ted Kennedy. Plus, he has a bio that many Americans, especially baby-boomers, will find hard to resist: A milltown boy who grew up into a jump-shooting, Kilimanjaro-climbing, marathon-running athlete. A lawyer with the passion of Atticus Finch (his infant son's namesake) who made his name defending the little guy -- and made a fortune doing it. A grieving dad who, after the freak accidental death of his teenaged son, is set to carry his memory all the way to the White House.

On the national stage, anyone campaigning openly right now can expect to meet an audience of empty chairs and chirping crickets. The average voter won't be watching until early 2003, and then only reluctantly and sporadically. But by that time, Edwards will need to have proved that the party's angels are on his side. "John has to literally go and see every big donor around the country: every Clinton donor, every Bradley donor, every Gore donor," says Ed Rendell, the party's former chairman, still weary himself of "the brutal physical demands of all that travel." If Edwards merely wants to be plausible as a candidate, Rendell gives him until July 2002 to meet face-to-face with about 1,000 key people, "all the while making that pitch over and over again, the same one, about why John Edwards is the one."

"He has about a year to meet 1,000 key people, says Ed Rendell, "all the while making that same pitch over and over, about why John Edwards is the one."

Everyone in the party's entire top tier is -- officially -- still a Gore backer. To undermine the beleaguered ex-nominee (in an open way) would be seen as disloyal. Party chairman Terry McAuliffe is on record as being no exception, though McAuliffe, long the bag man for both Bill and Hillary Clinton's political campaigns, was on the receiving end of Gore loyalists' protests that he wasn't doing enough for the nominee last year. This year, he seems very well positioned to be the party's kingmaker.

When asked back in January for signs that Edwards is running, a McAuliffe intimate said this: "Here's one. He had dinner with the chairman last night. And Edwards initiated the meeting." Soon after, the party gave him a role that sits him down periodically with the moneyed faithful: He's responsible for those at a "donor level" of $50,000 in annual individual gifts; Teddy Kennedy sits with those who give $100,000 or more each year. Weeks later, Edwards went to Chicago for a fund-raising event, corralling donors for his own 2004 Senate re-election. He coupled that meeting with a quick stop at the Drake University Law School in Des Moines, issuing a pre-trip non-denial denial to a breakfast club of D.C. columnists and bureau chiefs, who homed in on the Iowa visit as a sign that he's starting to run: "I heard the weather was really good there," Edwards said with a "Who, me?," arched-eyebrow expression.

Word gets around: Time magazine hails him in a sidebar titled the democrats' new golden boy. The New Republic trails him around his home state. The Des Moines Register notes his y'alls as echoes of Carter and Clinton in their early arrivals. Tim Russert hosts him twice in three weeks. People magazine shoots four hours' worth of photos for his designation as Sexiest Politician. There are potshots, too. Frank Rich compares him and Indiana senator Evan Bayh to "mid-market anchormen." William Safire's list of 2001 predictions forecasts Edwards as the party leader by year's end. Depending on your perspective, this nod from the conservative columnist could be seen as high-level praise or mischief.

Now he's made his second trip to Manhattan in ten days. He's not entirely familiar with the city; in the past, he had come here for depositions and for family visits with Jay Anania, his avant-garde-filmmaker brother-in-law. ("He lives in SoHo," a locale that showcases Edwards's languid o's.) Earlier, he was the guest of honor at a Democratic National Committee event at the home of Maureen White, the new finance chair of the party (a post previously held by Beth Dozoretz, the controversial Bill Clinton-Denise Rich go-between). With her financier husband, Steven Rattner, White brought him in touch with about 40 donors who didn't write checks to attend but have given at the donor level, earning them entrée to Edwards -- and vice versa.

At the couple's Upper East Side apartment, Edwards mingled during the cocktail hour. As everyone was seated, White turned the room's attention to him for ten minutes of remarks. He invited the crowd's questions for twenty more minutes. White circulated him in and out of the tables for the rest of the evening. "Senator Edwards was very positively received," the hostess recalls.

Monday's dinner was to have been another such evening, this one planned by the investment manager Orin Kramer, the chief fund-raiser for New Jersey senator Jon Corzine. Sworn in this past January, the former Goldman Sachs chief executive has an eye for political talent and a list of wealthy friends that any prospective candidate would want access to. Kramer served in the Carter White House and has raised money for a Democratic candidate in every presidential race since. Kramer had arranged a meal with twenty friends who he thinks should meet Edwards. They include Gristede's chief John Catsimatidis, Goldman Sachs executive Daniel Neidich, developer David Steiner, investment banker Woody Young, Martha Stewart's business partner Sharon Patrick, and psychologist Gail Furman.

"We're doing this for other senators as well," Kramer said. But talk to any of Kramer's close associates, and they will speak of his particular interest in getting influential people to know Edwards.

Bob Kerrey, the former senator and close Edwards confidant -- one who can warn him of the dark side of the media's attention -- knows that the spoils will go to the candidate who, four years out, can sound like a winner. "There are two sources of money in the world. You picture them as bags of money," says Kerrey. "The first bag is filled by people saying, 'You know, I met Candidate X and I like him.' " He measures that as a pretty small bag. "The other would contain coins from people saying, 'I met Candidate X and I think he's going to be president.' " Says Kerrey: "That's a biiiig bag."


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