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Jimmy Carter isn't endorsing, but he sure likes a fellow Southerner

August 30, 2007 | 10:27 pm

The Carter clan (that would be former president and his kin, not the famed country-music family) is sending mixed signals in the Democratic presidential race.

Jimmy Carter lavished John Edwards with praise as the two shared a stage Wednesday at Georgia Southwestern State University, Carter's alma mater. His kind words came the same week that his son, Jack Carter, announced he was backing Joe Biden.

The senior Carter remains on the sidelines in terms of a formal endorsement and, as a party elder statesman, may well stay there. But here's what he had to say about Edwards:

"I can say without equivocation that no one who is running for president has presented anywhere near as comprehensive and accurate a prediction of what our country ought to do in the field of environmental quality, in the field of health care for those who are not presently insured, for those who struggle with poverty."

Edwards, a renowned trial lawyer before he entered poltiics in North Carolina, could not have made stronger case in his bid to cast himself as the most committed progressive among the major Democratic candidates.

It stuck us that in many ways, the political personas of Carter and Edwards have followed similar trajectories.

In his improbable march to the White House, Carter ...

offered himself as a more moderate alternative to the liberal image the Democratic Party had been projecting. In ways subtle and overt, he drew attention to his Southern roots. And he stressed personal characteristics, such as his pledge to "never lie" to the American people, over issues.

Since voters declined to give him a second term in 1980 --- and especially in more recent years --- he evolved into a more sharp-edged, controversial public figure. He has been withering in his criticism of President Bush, ignoring the tradition of former Oval Office occupants speaking softly about their successors. And his book on the Middle East --- "Palestine Peace not Apartheid," published last year --- was widely attacked as anti-Israel.

Edwards, in his 2004 presidential campaign, was mainly about biography --- he was the "son of a mill worker" who had risen far above a humble beginning and would seek to help others do the same. And his campaign rarely missed an opportunity to provide reminders that since 1968, the only two Democrats winning the White House had been Southerners who were not strongly identified with liberal policies (Carter and Bill Clinton).

Edwards has significantly recalibrated his message in his current presidential run. He has laid out --- as Carter remarked --- a detailed, populist-oriented agenda on a variety of fronts. Moderate it is not. And he is making his proposals the core of his appeal to voters.

Gone, for the most part, is the sunny optimism that he projected last campaign. It has been replaced by a hard-edged rhetoric and a tougher critique not only of the Bush administration, but some of his fellow Democrats.

An exhaustive overview of Edwards' campaign is provided this week by Time magazine's Eric Pooley. The piece includes some provocative quotes from the candidate's wife, Elizabeth, about the electability --- or lack thereof, of Hillary Clinton.

As Pooley notes, Elizabeth Edwards (now routinely referred to as "outspoken") manages to zing Clinton while ostensibly defending her. 

-- Don Frederick