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Silence may cost Edwards speaking slot at convention

By Mark Johnson
mjohnson@charlotteobserver.com

RALEIGH Former Sen. John Edwards might have to move quickly to save his spot on the national stage.

With just two weeks before their national convention, a number of Democrats are saying Edwards needs to publicly address National Enquirer stories that have alleged he had an affair with a campaign worker and fathered her baby.

Democrats gather in Denver on Aug. 25 and Edwards, as the 2004 vice presidential nominee and a presidential candidate who won delegates this year, ordinarily would be locked in as a speaker.

Instead Democratic insiders say convention organizers will try to avoid the lingering questions if Edwards himself doesn't talk.

“He absolutely does have to (resolve it). If it's not true, he has to issue a stronger denial,” said Gary Pearce, the Democratic strategist who ran Edwards' 1998 Senate race. “It's a very damaging thing. … The big media has tried to be responsible and handle this with kid gloves, but it's clearly getting ready to bust out. If it's not true, he's got to stand up and say, ‘This is not true. That is not my child, and I'm going to take legal action against the people who are spreading these lies.' It's not enough to say, ‘That's tabloid trash.'”

The national convention is intended to showcase party unity and rally Democrats around the party's nominee. Prime-time speakers generate enthusiasm for the candidate and the party's platform. Edwards is widely regarded as a rousing speaker, particularly on poverty, and still has as many as 19 delegates pledged to him, making him a logical choice for a high-profile role under normal circumstances.

Convention organizers said only that the schedule of speakers has not yet been announced.

Edwards' decision not to take questions about the alleged affair has allowed doubts to linger and political bloggers to speculate. The National Enquirer has reported he fathered a child with a former campaign worker and met with her in a Beverly Hills hotel last month. He made no response to the National Enquirer's posting Wednesday of what it said was a photo of Edwards and his illegitimate child.

Two weeks ago, after the National Enquirer ran the story about the hotel liaison, he dismissed a reporter's question in Houston and used the “tabloid trash” line.

A reporter for the Web site Politico reached Edwards on his cell phone right after the story ran, but he declined to discuss the charges, according to a source familiar with the conversation.

He brushed off an Observer reporter in Washington last week: “Can't do it now, I'm sorry.”

His designated staffer for press contacts has not responded to e-mail requests for an interview.

No one answered a reporter who rang a buzzer at the gate of Edwards' Orange County home on Wednesday. Friends and former staffers refuse to comment now, though they helped Edwards last fall by dismissing the Enquirer story of a sexual relationship between Edwards and a campaign videographer when it initially broke.

“Sorry, cannot help you on this one,” wrote Jennifer Palmieri, a former top Edwards aide, in an e-mail last week.

Origin of the claim

The Enquirer published a story in October, citing unnamed sources, claiming that Edwards was having an affair with a woman who had filmed a series of videos during his presidential campaign. The tabloid later reported she was pregnant. Two weeks ago, the tabloid posted a story online chronicling how Edwards had visited the woman, Rielle Hunter, and their child July 21 at a Beverly Hills hotel and that the paper's reporters confronted him afterward.

In October, the woman posted an online statement denying the first story. In December, a campaign worker for Edwards, Andrew Young, claimed paternity of the woman's then-unborn child.

Last week, though, the Observer obtained a copy of the child's birth certificate, which did not list the father. Hunter's lawyer would only say “a lot of women do that” and that it was a personal matter between Hunter and Young.

Precarious standing

Presidential candidates who lose in the primaries traditionally are invited to address their party's convention, and Politico reported last month that Edwards told others he was promised a prime-time speaking slot when he endorsed Sen. Barack Obama. If Edwards fails to clear up the story in short order, he risks party officials deciding not to have him speak or, if they do, creating a distraction from a week focused on Obama accepting the nomination.

“If there is not an explanation that's satisfactory, acceptable and meets high moral standards, the answer is ‘no,' he would not be a prime candidate to make a major address to the convention,” said Columbia's Don Fowler, a former Democratic National Committee chair.

Edwards' political currency, which is his value as a public speaker and advocate, declines each day the story goes unresolved, Fowler and other Democratic strategists said.

An appearance at the convention would only highlight the unresolved story, said Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant and former aide to then-Vice President Al Gore. It's when the moment can drive the news media coverage.

“You want to address these issues long before you get to that point,” Lehane said. “Otherwise people who haven't written about it before, now start writing about it.”

McClatchy Newspapers reporters Lorenzo Perez and Lisa Zagaroli contributed to this story.

McClatchy Newspapers reporters Lorenzo Perez and Lisa Zagaroli contributed to this story.
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