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CANTON, Miss. - Not many presidential candidates make it to Mount Levi Full Gospel Baptist Church, located across the street from a battered trailer park and a chicken-processing plant.


“No, sir,” said Leice Murry Caldwell, a middle-aged former chicken plant employee, when asked if she met a presidential candidate before talking with Democrat John Edwards. “This is a gift from God.”


Rural Mississippi is flyover country for presidential campaigns - largely ignored because of its late primary and because it’s not a major source of campaign money.


But Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, is taking a detour off the main road to the White House this week in an effort to get his stride back.


Edwards is trying to get past all the Richie Rich stories of his $400 haircuts and 28,000-square-foot house outside Chapel Hill, N.C., which have plagued his campaign, and get his message refocused on fighting poverty, one of his principal campaign issues.


“I want to shed a light on the poverty that still exists in America,” Edwards said after meeting with poultry workers in Canton. “Second, what can be done to fix it.”


Edwards began a three-day, eight-state tour Monday that will take him from the rural poverty of the Mississippi Delta to the inner-city neighborhoods of Cleveland to the mountain hollers of Appalachia.


The trip is laden with symbolism. It included a stop in the impoverished Mississippi Delta town of Marks, where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. started his Poor People’s March on Washington in 1968, and it ends Wednesday in Prestonburg, Ky., which was the last stop of New York Sen. Robert Kennedy’s 1968 tour of Appalachian poverty.


Edwards began Monday in Hurricane Katrina-damaged New Orleans, where he announced his candidacy in December. Edwards promised a series of measures to help rebuild New Orleans, including the creation of 50,000 temporary public jobs for Gulf Coast residents for construction work, and the opening of a new Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.


“We are not the country of the Superdome in New Orleans after Katrina,” Edwards said. “We can do better than that. We have a moral responsibility to get New Orleans back on its feet.”


In Canton, Edwards visited with workers and former workers of a poultry processing plant, and he promised to create a Department of Labor task force that would target those industries that tend to abuse overtime and minimum-wage laws.


Judge Mamie Chinn had no doubts about Edwards making Canton, a city that is 80 percent black, a stop on his poverty tour. While some areas near the growing Jackson suburbs are prospering, other areas are reminiscent of “a Third World country,” Chinn said.


“You would not believe you are in the U.S.,” Chinn said. “It looks like its been bombed out.”


The trip comes at a time when Edwards has been losing ground to Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois in money, the polls and for popular attention. It also occurs when his campaign appears to be distracted by controversies highlighting the personal fortune he’s made as a trial lawyer.


“He has to do something to draw some attention to himself and to his campaign other than the attention he has been getting about his money, his haircut and his house,” said Kerry Haynie, a political science professor at Duke University. “That is not playing well. He has to change the focus of the attention he is getting. I read this poverty trip as an attempt do that.”


Few presidential candidates in recent years have emphasized fighting poverty as much as Edwards has.


Following the 2004 campaign, in which he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Edwards created the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity in Chapel Hill, which produced a series of seminars and a book on poverty.


Edwards has proposed a $15 billion- to $20 billion-per-year anti-poverty program to include universal health care coverage, 1 million temporary public jobs, housing vouchers, raising the minimum wage and new laws to encourage organized labor. Edwards has set a goal of ending poverty in 30 years.


Poverty was once a potent issue championed by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s and Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. But as the nation became more middle class, poverty has receded as an issue.


In a Gallup Poll conducted last month, only 5 percent mentioned poverty, hunger and homelessness when asked what was the top issue facing the country.


“I think we came to times, starting with President Reagan, where there was a too widespread view in our country that if somebody was poor it was their own fault,” said Peter Edelman, a former Robert Kennedy aide and poverty expert. “I think too many politicians, in terms of talking about it openly and honestly, felt it was a little too risky to challenge that preconception.”


Even President Clinton, who took a number of steps to alleviate poverty, such as supporting tax breaks for the working poor, tended not to frame the issue as fighting poverty, said Edelman.


But Edelman said there are signs that poverty is getting more attention, mainly because of growing economic inequality. Edelman said that while there may be 37 million Americans whose incomes are under the poverty line, there are 90 million people who are having trouble paying their bills every month.


Neither Clinton nor Obama has stressed anti-poverty to the extent that Edwards has. But Clinton can tap into her husband’s legacy, and Obama once worked as community organizer on the south side of Chicago.


So far, though, poor people haven’t been flocking to Edwards’ campaign.


According to a recent Washington Post-ABC poll, Clinton had the support of 55 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents with household incomes below $20,000. Obama had 20 percent, and Edwards had 10 percent.


Edwards’ targets, however, aren’t only poor people, but also party liberals and leaders and organized labor members who share Edwards’ view that the government should take a more active role in combating poverty.


The Edwards campaign also is using the poverty trip to raise a little money, asking supporters to contribute $8 - a reference to the fact that 1 of 8 Americans live in poverty.


___


(Christensen reports for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.)

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