Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards derided as a "fantasy" Friday Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's hope that he can work with Washington lobbyists to bring about change as he seeks to sharpen his differences with the Democratic front-runners in advance of Sunday's ABC News Democratic debate in Des Moines, Iowa.
Edwards said in an interview with ABC News aboard his campaign bus that Obama's statement that lobbyists would "have a seat at the table" under his administration misunderstands the nature of their power over Washington business.
"I disagree with that," Edwards said on board the "Fighting for One America" bus, as he and his campaign entourage traveled between campaign stops in Iowa. "The idea that lobbyists for insurance companies, drug companies, oil companies, are going to voluntarily give away their power is a fantasy. I don't think it will ever happen. I think the only way we're going to bring about change is to take them on head-on, and to defeat them."
Edwards Blasts Clinton, Obama
Edwards had sharper words for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., suggesting that she would bring her own group of "Washington insiders" if she were elected president.
"I'm not going to replace one group of Washington insiders with another group of Washington insiders," Edwards said when asked about Clinton's relationship with lobbyists. "There's a very clear distinction in terms of what I want to do to bring about the change. Sen. Clinton continues to raise money from (lobbyists), and I think we should say no to that. I mean, Sen. Clinton has been part of Washington for a very long time."
The Clinton campaign responded by saying that her record leaves her best positioned to lead the call for change in the presidential election and beyond.
"Hillary Clinton has fought for change her whole life, and is the candidate with the strength and experience to actually make change happen starting in 2009," said Phil Singer, a Clinton spokesman.
Obama's camp also took issue with Edwards.
"Obama has done more to curb lobbyists' influence than anyone else in this race and has the furthest reaching plan to fundamentally reform government and shut the revolving door between the White House and K Street," said Obama campaign spokesperson Bill Burton.
"In Obama's administration," Burton continued, "individuals will not be able to work on regulations or contracts directly related to former employers for two years. And when someone leaves, he or she will not be able to lobby the administration throughout the remainder of his term in office."
Anti-Poverty Commitment Questioned
Edwards is also facing renewed questions about his commitment to fighting poverty.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that 34 New Orleans homes have had their owners face foreclosure suits from subprime-lending units of Fortress Investment Group, the hedge fund Edwards worked for in 2005 and 2006 -- and that he still had $16 million invested in.
Edwards said he has already moved to divest himself from any Fortress funds that were involved in the actions against Hurricane Katrina victims. He also said he has begun efforts to reach out to those facing foreclosure lawsuits, and said he would dip into his own pocket to help them.
"It's going to take some work to find them," Edwards said. "I don't have a plan yet (of how to help). I just found out about this, and I've got to figure out a way to help them."
Edwards Eyes Iowa
Edwards' comments come on the eve of ABC's Sunday debate in Iowa, the first in the crucial state in the presidential nominating process.
The former senator has particularly emphasized Iowa in his campaign, and the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll had him essentially tied with Clinton and Obama in the Hawkeye State.
Edwards has put the bulk of his campaign attention on Iowa this year -- as if he learned the lesson of 2004, when Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., edged him out in the state with the first-in-the-nation caucuses and never looked back en route to the Democratic nomination. This week, he's making 31 stops in Iowa cities and towns during a six-day bus tour, putting his tally of Iowa events so far this year well above 100.
But 2008's Edwards looks almost nothing like the Edwards of 2004, who projected sunny optimism and mostly refused to attack his fellow Democrats.
He's taken on an aggressive populist tone in his campaign this year, with angry rhetoric about "these people" who are in control of the government, and crowd-pleasing lines about how he'll take on "the special interests in Washington."
Edwards likes to quote Robert F. Kennedy, but he's less Kennedy than he is Willie Stark, Robert Penn Warren's fictional small-town Southerner who rose from poverty to the governor's office based on angry appeals to the forgotten class.
"I listen to George Bush as little as I can get away with," he said at a campaign stop Thursday. "But sometimes I hear him, even when I'm not trying, and this is what I hear from him: 'Stay home, watch television, Dick Cheney and I, we'll take care of you,'" his voice rising to accentuate the mocking tone.
"I don't want that crowd taking care of me," Edwards continued. "First of all, I don't trust 'em, the last thing I want is them taking care of me. Second, that's not who we are. That's not America."
He's doesn't shy away from drawing distinctions between himself and his fellow presidential candidates. He regularly jabs Clinton over her ties to lobbyists -- "We are not the party of Washington insiders" -- and Obama over his rhetoric about the need to bring the country together to solve problems.
"I do not believe you can bring about change by being nice and compromising," Edwards said Thursday at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines. "I mean, the insurance companies and drug companies and oil companies and their lobbyists have been running the government in Washington. And the only way change is going to occur is if we take them on directly and beat them."
The Electability Argument
Edwards also makes a thinly veiled argument about electability, strongly suggesting that he is the only major candidate who can help down-ballot Democrats in next year's elections.
"One of the things that everybody in Iowa should be asking themselves," Edwards said Thursday night in Ottumwa, "me, Sen. Clinton, Sen. Obama -- those three candidates -- it's not just winning the White House. We also need to strengthen our position in the House and the Senate. How do we do that? We win in tough places ... Who -- Clinton, Edwards, Obama, who if you're running in Georgia, in a tough place, or Virginia, or in Iowa, who would you rather run with?"
For all his tough talk, there's an eagerness to please that colors Edwards' interactions with voters. He often says that he's about to offer an answer that "you may not agree with," but seldom says anything very disagreeable.
Still, the aggressive Edwards pleases many Democratic caucusgoers, who are eager for a change in parties -- and a drastically new direction -- after two Bush-Cheney terms.
"He's honest, and he's listening to what the people have to say," said Herman Wyatt, a retired John Deere factory employee who lives in Oskaloosa. "That guy's genuine -- he's real."
Edwards said he's confident he's giving voice to voters' concerns in part because other Democrats are adopting positions he's espoused on issues including Iraq, poverty, health care and the environment.
"I don't say this in any derogatory way about the others -- I just think that I've led on every major issue," Edwards told ABC. "I've been thinking about being president. I don't come to this at the last minute."
ABC News' Raelyn Johnson contributed to this report.