Painting himself as the populist among the Democratic candidates vying for the 2008 presidential nomination, John Edwards deflected questions about his infamous $400 haircut while articulating his plan to stem American poverty at a town hall meeting in New Orleans today on "Good Morning America."
Edwards is campaigning on a platform of universal health care and a national goal to end poverty in 30 years, yet he's had to defend the great wealth he's amassed as a trial lawyer.
The former North Carolina senator, who was John Kerry's running mate in 2004, faces a tough battle from front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton and newcomer Sen. Barack Obama.
On "GMA," Edwards was asked to share one solution to eliminating poverty.
"If I had to pick just one, it would be to make work pay," Edwards said.
Three ways to do that, Edwards said, are to raise the national minimum wage, increase the earned income tax credit and allow workers to organize unions and collectively bargain for better wages.
But can a wealthy candidate live among the privileged and really care about poverty?
Edwards, the son of a textile worker who was the first in his family to go to college, got rich as a successful trial lawyer. Though he has garnered attention recently for large payouts from a hedge fund after he left office, he suggested that his rise to great wealth from more humble beginnings gave him a unique perspective.
"If you look at the arc of my life, I came from very little to having a lot. I'm very proud of that," Edwards said.
Asked about improving education, Edwards said that the government needed to make a bigger investment in early childhood education and give incentive pay to the best teachers, especially ones who worked in low-income rural and inner-city areas.
"First of all, our Head Start programs basically start at 4 years of age. We should start much earlier," he said, adding that those who teach in early childhood programs should be better trained as educators, not just caretakers.
No Military Win in Iraq
Edwards was one of the first politicians to say the United States should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
"What it says to the Iraqi people is we've now reached the stage that you're going to have to take responsibility for your own country," Edwards said.
Edwards said he doesn't think the fight in Iraq is lost, even though he disagrees with President Bush's outlook on Iraq.
"He has a completely unrealistic view about what's happening in Iraq," he said. "Things have not gone well. It's obvious to anybody in America. And the president, unfortunately, is not willing to change course, and the American people are demanding it."
At the same time, Edwards said there is no possibility of military victory in Iraq.
"What's happening, the Shia and Sunni have a political conflict that is the basis of all the violence in Iraq," he said. "Unless and until that conflict is resolved by the Iraqis, there is going to continue to be violence there."
Edwards does, however, believe American military forces should remain in the region to "prepare for the worst."
On the $400 Haircut, and Tax Breaks for Rich
An audience member asked how Edwards could justify a $400 haircut he had gotten on the campaign trail.
"I don't," Edwards said to laughter. He said he wouldn't be doing it again. "Some lessons you learn the hard way."
Edwards said he simply wasn't paying attention during his hectic travel schedule.
Talking about jobs and the economy, Edwards said he supports outsourcing, but only if it's "done in a smart way." He said he believes Bush has not figured out how to balance the export of labor and keep high-paying jobs in America.
"There needs to be labor standards and we need to enforce them, which the president is not doing," he said. "Second, we need to get rid of these tax breaks for companies taking jobs overseas. That's crazy. That needs to stop."
Edwards also discussed his plan for universal health care. He said a universal health-care system could help not only Americans below the poverty line, but also those in the lower middle class struggling to make ends meet.
"Half the bankruptcies in this country are the result of health-care costs," he said, "so we cannot only make sure everyone has coverage but also bring down the costs of health care for everybody."
Though the cost of Edwards' proposed health-care program is high — between $90 billion and $120 billion — he said America can afford it by doing away with Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy.
"I'd pay for it by getting rid of President Bush's tax cuts only for those who make over $200,000 a year," he said. "We'll roll their tax rates back to what they were during the Clinton years."
Elizabeth Edwards' Health
In March, Edwards' wife, Elizabeth Edwards, learned her cancer, first diagnosed 2½ years ago, had returned. They made the decision together to continue the campaign.
Elizabeth Edwards said today she's doing well on the campaign trail. A recent bone scan, she said, revealed nothing new about her condition.