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Starting Gun

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Getting attention but not too much attention is Edwards's current quest. He doesn't want to pique rivals, many of whom sit in the Senate cloakroom with him every day and can array forces against his ascent. Or Gore, for that matter, who has extremely personal files on all last year's veep prospects. In the meantime, he has to continue to work his way up the Senate ladder -- in addition to being tapped by McCain and Ted Kennedy to help out on the patients' bill of rights, he's a new pick for the Senate Intelligence panel. Hillary Rodham Clinton sits beside him on the Health and Education committee, and her first floor speech was on his pet issue, the patients' bill of rights.

Edwards doesn't want to quarrel with Bush (or Cheney or White House strategist Karl Rove), but it may be too late. He appears to be the only senator to have a prospective federal judge from his home state nominated over his objections. Mentors had publicly warned Bush not to pick a fight over the courts, but the temptation to stymie his potential 2004 rival might have been too difficult for Bush to resist.

Nor can Edwards afford to alienate North Carolina voters so early in his relationship with them. In that regard, there's a trap being set for him. GOP state legislators have a bill on a fast track to keep any Tarheel senator (really, it's aimed at him) from running for Senate re-election and higher office simultaneously -- a feat Lieberman mastered last year.

Despite the 44-month stretch until someone takes the oath of office again, many political insiders are already revealing their designs for Edwards. Their phone calls and invitations and solicitations can clear an early path for Edwards in the same way that the Bush family Christmas-card list did for George W. Many Democrats clearly see all sorts of assets Edwards can contribute to their quest to be the dominant party again. He has what they want. But he hasn't yet decided: Does he want what they can give him?


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