MARKS, Miss. - As former Sen. John Edwards was touring this Mississippi Delta town the other day, a woman mistook him for a member of the Kennedy clan.
A little while later, the local mayor referred to the Democratic presidential candidate as “Sen. Kennedy” while presenting him with a key to the city. Even a man giving Edwards a tour of his neighborhood kept pointing out a certain resemblance.
“The last person who came here seeking national office,” the man told Edwards solemnly, “was Bobby Kennedy.”
It is a comparison that Edwards, a North Carolina Democrat, has implicitly invited as he wraps up a tour of poverty-stricken areas around the South and Midwest on Wednesday, a faint echo of the lengthy tours that Robert F. Kennedy made before his assassination in 1968.
At the same time, though, Edwards faces some obvious hurdles to pulling it off. As a man who lives in a 28,000-square foot mansion, and who recently made news with his $400 haircuts and his work for a hedge fund, he faces questions about whether his heart is really with the poor.
He clearly has succeeded on one level, namely getting some attention in the slow summer months before next year’s primaries. Edwards has leaned heavily on the Kennedy legacy throughout the week, and his caravan is scheduled to end on Wednesday in the location of Kennedy’s last stop.
At the same time, Edwards lifts the banner at a much different time in political history. As angry as some people are today about social inequity and injustice, there isn’t the same strength of feeling - passionate war demonstrations, race riots - that roiled the period of Kennedy’s rise to influence.
Still, for some, including close associates of Kennedy, the parallel seems apt. Some of them applaud Edwards for emphasizing poverty at a time when it might not seem like a winning issue.
“I do see parallels to Bobby Kennedy, because of their focus on the most serious problem in America,” said Frank Mankiewicz, who was Kennedy’s press secretary and a companion on some of the poverty-focused trips.
“I think it’s a credit to John Edwards that he’s spending a lot of time on an issue that’s important and that might not be a source of votes,” said Mankiewicz. “But down the road it might have important meaning in history.”
Peter Edelman, a close aide to Kennedy, said that RFK wasn’t a candidate for president until well into his poverty tours, a notable difference from the tour of Edwards, a declared candidate for his party’s nomination for president in 2008.
Kennedy actually took many trips focused on poverty. One of his earliest trips was to California in 1966 for a Senate subcommittee hearing on migrant labor and continuing with subsequent trips to the Mississippi Delta and to an American Indian reservation in South Dakota. His final trip, to Kentucky, took place after he had announced his run for president in 1968.
And Edelman says Kennedy’s aim was similar to that of Edwards.
“His purpose was to dramatize these conditions for the country,” Edelman recalled. “He had the ability to bring national television with him. ... The consequence of (Kennedy) seeing those severely malnourished children in Mississippi is that they were on national news that night.”
Similarly, this week’s “Road to One America” tour has drawn the biggest crowds the Edwards campaign has seen since he and his wife, Elizabeth, announced the return of her cancer this spring. Two press vans followed Edwards for the better part of the week, and at every stop a crowd of local television cameras showed up.
Even if the media relay the message, some political analysts wonder if it will have the same resonance with voters.
Poverty is a different kind of problem than it was in the 1960s and people have a different view of it now, said John Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College who has written about Kennedy.
“We have billions of dollars in social spending that has happened (since the 1960s), and people are much more skeptical about the ability of government to resolve poverty,” he said.
At the same time, Edwards has the added challenge of invoking historical legacy, Pintney said, which is “a delicate operation and you have to be subtle about it.”
“With any Kennedy, there’s a large measure of calculation, but there was also a sincerity,” said Pitney. “Poor people did believe that Kennedy sympathized. ... There was just something about him that struck people as genuine.”
Some critics point out that the poverty center Edwards started has served substantially to raise his own career profile, and some suggest that his many trips to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina were overly political.
But during his travels this week, Edwards argued that the poverty center and his trips to New Orleans reflect a heartfelt commitment to the poor. In the style of a practiced trial lawyer, he reframed the criticism and then vigorously condemned it.
“I’ve had reporters asking me all day long ... `Why do you do this? Why do you talk about this issue? The American people don’t care about this,’” Edwards said at one point during his tour. “Is that true? No. We have to convince the media and the world that America cares.”
Edwards started his tour in New Orleans, and then worked his way through rural towns in Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. He also visited Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, and Pittsburgh before heading south again to Kentucky, where he is set to end his trip with a visit to the same town that Kennedy visited not long before his death.
Dressed in a navy button-down and faded Levi’s, Edwards spent an entire day speaking with dozens of low-wage workers, including poultry plant employees, home health care workers and educators.
At times, the visits were frenetic, with Edwards arriving at an event site and talking only briefly with people who had come to see him.
“They should have had more time to take some questions,” said Emma Thompson of West Helena, Ark., who came to see Edwards speak to health care workers. “He’s not able to listen to everybody.”
At other times, Edwards seemed to touch the emotional buttons for which he was reaching. In Memphis, he listened for more than 10 minutes as a woman told him and an audience the moving story of her struggle to overcome drug addiction and to make a home for her son, now a 10-year-old “A” student.
After she spoke, a few audience members were moved to tears. Then Edwards took the stage.
“I think we ought to bring her son up here for a minute,” Edwards said, hoisting the smiling boy into the air for the crowd, which broke into jubilant cheers.
In Marks, residents of Cotton Street were explicitly drawing their own Kennedy parallels, and Edwards wasn’t doing anything to tamp them down.
One woman told a reporter she thought Edwards was a son or maybe a nephew of Bobby or John F. Kennedy. As he showed Edwards around the neighborhood, a city commissioner named James Figgs quietly told Edwards he was practically walking in the footsteps of RFK.
“Say that again,” Edwards said, motioning to some bystanders, “so they can hear it.”