Over and over, Iowans who see him up close say, "He's one of us, but with a Southern accent." Indeed, in his speeches, Edwards emphasizes his small-town "son of a mill worker" roots and glosses over his years as a trial lawyer, his wealth, and his five years in the Senate. Interviews with Iowans at Edwards events revealed that about two-thirds didn't know that he was a trial lawyer or that he is wealthy.
The senator's stump-speech spin on his life story is surely a calculation. But, he says, if there's anything he learned from his courtroom years that applies to politics, it's that you can't fool people.
"You're living in never-never land if you think you can," says Edwards in an interview in his van at the end of a long day of campaigning. "When you're speaking to voters ... the single most important thing that you have is your credibility. They listen to both the substance of what you're saying and the way you say it, to determine whether they think you're being straight with them. I think it's like a threshold test: If you don't meet that test, nothing else matters. And I think the same thing's true in courtrooms."
Edwards isn't shy about answering a question with "I don't know." And sometimes, he says, you have to tell jurors - and voters - things they don't want to hear. But he's learned that "you better be the first one to tell 'em, because otherwise they'll think you're hiding it from 'em."