CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Two homes, two images, one candidate.
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Democrat John Edwards, who has made an anti-poverty message the theme of his 2008 presidential campaign, is taking heat for the lavish home he has constructed in Orange County, N.C.
In December, Edwards chose the modest backyard of a New Orleans woman who had lost her home to Hurricane Katrina as the image that best underscored his campaign theme.
Now voters are seeing another, sharply contrasting image of Edwards: his own home.
Sitting on 102 secluded acres - surrounded by trees and defended by no-trespassing signs - the 28,000-square-foot estate that Edwards and his family call home has presidential privacy.
Most expensive home in county
The main home has five bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths. It's connected by a covered walkway to a bright red addition known as "The Barn," that includes its own living facilities along with a handball court, an indoor pool and an indoor basketball court with a stage at one end. Nearby, the family has cleared space for a soccer field.
With a current building value of $4.3 million, the unfinished Edwards estate is already about $1 million more expensive than any other house in the county, according to tax records. It sits on land worth about $1.1 million.
Edwards first purchased the land in 2004, during his failed run as vice president. He recently sold his mansion in Washington's tony Georgetown neighborhood for $5.2 million.
Edwards, a former trial lawyer who made millions before winning a seat in the Senate representing North Carolina, has faced criticism regarding the estate. It also has become the subject of late-night jokes.
"Well, I think we know which America he's living in," Jay Leno quipped on NBC's "Tonight Show," a riff of Edwards' frequent mention of the "two Americas" - one for the wealthy and one for the poor.
Monty Johnson, a neighbor whose property sits directly across from the Edwards tract, recently posted a "Go Rudy Giuliani 2008" sign just 100 feet from Edwards' driveway.
Pros and cons
"The home is a monster. It's way over the top," Johnson said. "There's no way that a normal family could ever need a house like that. It's only going to hurt him. I don't think he's going to be able to sell his story that he's for the poor people."
Laurin Easthom, a Democrat and town council member in nearby Chapel Hill, said Edwards has earned the right to build a large home.
"I see somebody who has come from a very humble background and with really hard work has gotten to the point where he is," Easthom said. "He's out there trying to do some good, and he's giving back both financially and by what he plans to do through his campaign."
Jennifer Palmieri, an Edwards adviser, dismissed the brouhaha as of little interest to voters.
But political consultant Bill Miller said the lavish estate could become a sore point for the candidate.
"Anything that appears to be extravagant or over the top is not the best card to play when you're running for president - especially when you're trying to differentiate yourself the way John Edwards is," said Miller, who has worked closely with the Republican Party.
After introducing their new home on her husband's campaign Web site, Elizabeth Edwards explained the couple had taken special precautions to make the house energy efficient - keeping in line with Edwards' environmental platform. But she spent the next week battling blog-based critics who wanted to discuss the building's size - and she suggested that one posting on the campaign's Web site may have come from a Republican or a rival Democrat.
"Did it come from the right? Did it come from another campaign? I have no idea," Elizabeth Edwards wrote. "What I do know is that it is no news bulletin that John and I have money. It is no news bulletin that he earned every cent."
Edwards and his wife live in the house with their two young children, Emma Claire, 8, and Jack, 6. Their older daughter, Cate, is a student at Harvard Law School.
Many of the other 2008 contenders also own expensive homes. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and husband Bill, the former president, own two homes: a Dutch Colonial house in Chappaqua, N.Y., that they purchased for $1.7 million in 1999, and a Washington home that went for $2.9 million in 2001.
On the GOP side, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the founder of venture capital and investment firm Bain Capital, owns three homes. Arizona Sen. John McCain also owns real estate worth millions of dollars.
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