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Only minutes after Democrat John Kerry announced that fellow U.S. Sen. John Edwards would be his choice for vice president, Republicans e-mailed their prepared negative reaction. And the GOP focused its sights on Edwards’ two decades as a rainmaking plaintiffs lawyer, saying he was a friend of greedy trial lawyers and an opponent of tort reform. That plan of attack was not surprising, given that Republicans have been championing measures to limit class action lawsuits and rein in large damage awards in medical malpractice cases. But the ultimate impact of this attack on the presidential election is less certain. Some lawyers and political consultants believe that it will not affect swing voters at all. Some believe it will galvanize the Republican and Democratic base. Others think Edwards has a chance to put a more positive face on trial lawyers. Kenneth Rothweiler, a partner at Eisenberg Rothweiler Schleifer Weinstein & Winkler, served as chairman of Edwards’ presidential campaign fund-raising in Pennsylvania. He now plans to focus his efforts on helping the new Kerry/Edwards team. Rothweiler, a former Philadelphia Trial Lawyers Association president, said he believes Edwards will actually have a positive effect on swing voters, despite being attacked, because of his professional background. “What I think we have here is a shining star who can change that negative image of trial lawyers that is in so many people’s heads,” Rothweiler said. “The Republicans are going to put out stuff about him being a trial lawyer and try to argue that he’s anti-business. But we think he’s such a good messenger that he’ll sway people. “Once you hear his story about being the son of a mill worker who made himself into a brilliant trial lawyer and then changed his life after losing his son — people relate to that. And he shouldn’t have to apologize for being successful because he did it with the greatest of professional integrity.” Edwards was one of North Carolina’s most successful trial lawyers but was jolted into public service by the death of his 16-year-old son Wade in a 1996 car accident. Two years later, Edwards successfully challenged incumbent Lauch Faircloth for his U.S. Senate seat. And despite going up against the vaunted Republican machine headed by that state’s senior senator, Jesse Helms, Edwards emerged relatively unscathed. “North Carolina politics is a pretty rough-and-tumble game,” said radio talk show host Michael Smerconish, who also serves as of counsel at The Beasley Firm. “You can be sure that opposition research for Lauch Faircloth looked at every case the guy ever tried for something negative. And they couldn’t find anything substantial. I read Edwards’ book and when you study the cases he handled, it’s really hard to find fault with what he did. He took tough cases in a tough state and won them.” Smerconish is a rare bird in that he is both a Republican and a trial lawyer. He believes Edwards’ trial lawyer past will be meaningful to the respective Republican and Democratic bases but have little impact on the all-important swing voters. Those who have yet to make up their minds will do so largely on the basis of issues such as Iraq and the economy, or their personal views of Kerry and President Bush. “As a Republican, I hope he’s unsuccessful,” Smerconish said. “But as a trial lawyer, I hope he’s able to present a positive image to the public about trial lawyers. After all, everyone hates us until they need one of us.” Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel partner Lawrence Tabas said he believes Edwards’ profession will have a “second-tier effect” on the election. On one side, Tabas said he expects trial lawyers to rally around Edwards by opening their wallets like never before. The projected enhanced fund-raising could help the campaign as it tries to match the huge Republican coffers with advertising. But Tabas said those in the business community, particularly members of the health care industry, could become galvanized behind Bush. “I don’t view ‘trial lawyer’ as a derogatory term, but there are a lot of people out there that do,” Tabas said. “I represent a lot of people in the health care community, and they have told me that with the selection of Edwards, they see no hope of relief coming from Kerry, and they are going to open their checkbooks for President Bush.” G. Terry Madonna, head of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, said he does not believe trial lawyers are as divisive as one might think. “Polling tells us that people want some kind of tort reform, and they have some concern about all of these giant awards and the image it creates,” Madonna said. “Lawyers don’t score well when we ask for people’s opinions about specific professions. But neither do politicians. “But I think the bigger issue with Edwards will be his experience. The Republicans will say that he has virtually no legislative record and question whether he’s ready to become president. And they will also bring up his connections to trial lawyers, just like they would have brought up connections to unions if the choice has been Dick Gephardt. That’s just the nature of modern politics.” Madonna said he believes that big things matter. In this instance, that means that voters will choose between Kerry and Bush and that the vice presidential candidates will be on the periphery. “He’s a good campaigner so that might help a bit, but vice presidential candidates can rarely wind up hurting the presidential candidate,” Madonna said. “The senior George Bush won with [Dan] Quayle on the ticket [in 1988], and Nixon won with Spiro Agnew [in 1968]. There’s already been plenty of opposition research done on Edwards, and I doubt they will uncover something that’s going to shake his candidacy. So his being a trial lawyer won’t really swing things one way or the other.”

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