A Republican Who's Taking His Medicine
By James Carney/Raleigh
In the first few years after he was elected in 1992, North Carolina's Lauch Faircloth tried to be every bit as conservative and unbridled as that other, better-known Republican Senator from the Tar Heel State, Jesse Helms. During the Whitewater hearings, Faircloth used his seat on the Senate Banking Committee to accuse Hillary Clinton of having "lied." In the fight over health-care reform, he was one of the most vinegary opponents of the Clinton plan--or Hillary Care, as he liked to call it. And just days before Kenneth Starr was named Whitewater independent counsel in 1994, Faircloth and Helms famously lunched with Federal Appeals Court judge David Sentelle, who headed the three-judge panel that chose Starr. Though Faircloth insists they weren't conferring about Starr, Clinton's friends suspect otherwise.
But times have changed, and so, in some ways, has Faircloth. Last week, at a hastily called press conference in Raleigh, N.C., the 70-year-old Senator went out of his way to portray himself as an HMO reformer and the proud co-sponsor of a G.O.P.. alternative to the Patients' Bill of Rights favored by the President. "It's an important issue, and it's one we're going to address," Faircloth declared.
What explains his sudden passion for health-care reform? The answer is John Edwards. A 45-year-old trial lawyer and self-financed political neophyte, Edwards made HMO bashing the centerpiece of his recent come-from-nowhere campaign to win the state's Democratic Senate primary. In a year when public contentment guarantees most incumbents an extra bit of job security--but when unhappiness over managed care is the issue to watch--Edwards' surge has turned Faircloth's re-election into a fifty-fifty proposition. Democrats are jubilant over a new internal poll that shows the two men in a statistical dead heat. Even Republicans say the race will be close. "It's not every day that you run against a very slick, very glib, very talented, very presentable personal-injury lawyer," deadpans Alex Castellanos, Faircloth's media adviser. "They know how to sell."
On the day before Faircloth's press conference, Edwards was peddling his own health-care elixir at a panel discussion in Raleigh. He condemned "health-care bureaucrats" who overrule doctors in determining a patient's treatment, and asked, "Are we gonna put the law on the side of the patient or...leave it on the side of the big insurance companies?" In the familiar terms of Southern populism, Edwards promised to be an "independent voice" in the Senate for those who "don't have Lear jets to fly them to Washington, don't have lobbyists walking the halls of Congress and don't have the money to contribute to political campaigns."
All that would sound a lot less convincing coming from a multimillionaire trial lawyer if Edwards didn't do a persuasive job of selling what he also is: the son of a small-town (Robbins, N.C., pop. 970 ) textile-mill worker and a shop owner. Offering his version of the log-cabin legend, Edwards likes to tell about visiting Washington for the first time in 1976 as a law school student with a summer internship at the Securities and Exchange Commission. After climbing aboard a bus, he was humiliated by the driver when he didn't know what to do with his fare. "I had never been on a city bus before," Edwards remembers now. "I was such a hillbilly!" Even so, he was the kind of hillbilly who became one of North Carolina's top trial lawyers, winning huge negligence and malpractice cases against corporations, insurers, doctors and hospitals.
With his Bruce Jenner hair and gummy Donny Osmond grin, Edwards presents a striking contrast to Faircloth, whose jowly awkwardness in the spotlight is part of his appeal--but can also make him seem a throwback to a waning, good-ole-boy era in North Carolina politics. As usual, and for good reason, the Edwards-Faircloth contest is being cast as a battle between rural conservatives and a new North Carolina, the one centered on Charlotte, the state's thriving financial center, and booming Research Triangle Park, a high-tech enclave that encompasses Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.
The influx of better-educated, more suburban voters to the new North Carolina has created a political paradox. The state's electorate is becoming more Republican yet less conservative. New voters in Charlotte and Research Triangle Park tend to register Republican but still prefer fiscally responsible pragmatists--even if they sometimes happen to be Democrats--over firebrand ideologues. Faircloth, a successful hog farmer and former Democrat, scores better in the rural east, which is dominated by socially conservative white Democrats who frequently cross party lines to vote for Helms and other G.O.P.. culture warriors. Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats. The result is a state in hold-your-breath political balance: a Democratic Governor, two Republican Senators and six Congressmen from each party.
For years Democrats have believed, or at least hoped, that the emergence of new-style moderate voters would be enough to cost Jesse Helms his seat. Not yet. Now they are hoping that Edwards will be a crossover success, uniting those more moderate suburbanites with a good chunk of the rural conservatives whose background he shares. "I know 'em like the back of my hand," he says. Sensing trouble, Faircloth is hard on the attack, labeling the other guy a money-hungry trial lawyer whose life's work has driven up the cost of health care across the state. At the same time, he is furiously trying to neutralize Edwards' message by co-opting not just HMO reform but also other Democratic issues, such as environmental protection and "saving Social Security." He has good reason to scramble. Not only is Edwards an exceptionally strong opponent but Faircloth's seat may be jinxed. No Senator who has held it has been re-elected since 1968.