IMAGE: Edwards 2008
AP
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards holds a birthday card from a supporter with a caricature of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., printed on it, during a meeting at a Sheet Metal Workers local in Las Vegas Wednesday.
updated 7/12/2007 12:00:31 PM ET 2007-07-12T16:00:31

The campaign of presidential hopeful John Edwards has a ready answer for all the criticism about his expensive haircuts and expansive home: A man can be wealthy and care about the poor, too.

Just look at a Democratic hero — Robert F. Kennedy.

Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, plans to spend three days next week on a poverty tour reminiscent of Kennedy's 1968 trip. Edwards even plans to end his journey where Kennedy did some 40 years ago, in Prestonsburg, Ky.

The eight-state tour shifts the spotlight to an issue that has been the focus of Edwards' campaign since his first run for the White House four years ago. In recent weeks, publicity about his personal wealth — $400 haircuts, construction of a 28,000-square-foot house, hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary to speak about poverty and advise a hedge fund for the superrich — has opened him to charges of hypocrisy and threatened to undermine his message.

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"The last thing you want to do is become the Elmer Gantry of the 2008 election cycle," said former Rep. David Nagle, D-Iowa, referring to the fraudulent preacher depicted in Sinclair Lewis' novel. "His opponents are trying to paint him as Elmer Gantry, and some of that paint is hanging on the canvas."

Edwards' advisers argue that hair cuts and square footage shouldn't undermine his candidacy when the nation has far greater concerns such as the Iraq war, nearly 44 million uninsured and 37 million living in poverty. They note that nearly all the leading candidates running for president in 2008 are wealthy, as well as those in the past who have championed poverty.

Video: 'A responsibility to give back'

"I think voters understand that whether it was Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Bobby Kennedy, there's been a lot of people interested in issues that don't fit their own financial situation," said Edwards pollster Harrison Hickman.

Overcoming Skepticism
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, said the perception of hypocrisy has become a problem for Edwards, fair or not, but he doesn't think it is insurmountable.

"I think it's something he has to live with now," Scala said. "You try to make light of it, which I think he did. You try to change the subject as gracefully as possible."

Edwards isn't changing the subject as much as he is taking it head on. When the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing Wednesday to discuss how hedge fund managers avoid paying taxes on much of their compensation, Edwards embraced it as a chance to decry the abuse of the tax code even though he has, in the past, provided consulting services for some of those managers.

Edwards advisers say they fully expect the poverty tour will revive more questions about his finances verses his message and he is prepared to answer them.

He frequently talks about how he was born into a working-class family and has been able to live the American dream. But the tour is an attempt to show that the debate shouldn't be about him but about one in eight Americans living in poverty.

"Let them attack," Edwards said in a letter to supporters, asking for symbolic $8 campaign donations to support his effort. "We know what's right. And we will keep fighting to end the national disgrace of 37 million Americans living in poverty."

Taking the trip also is a risk since it is a significant detour from campaigning in early states and raising money. But his campaign hopes the tour will provide visuals of the candidate addressing concerns of the poor that will stick throughout the campaign.

Edwards' tour was to begin Sunday night in New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward, still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. Then he planned to travel to Marks, Miss., where Martin Luther King Jr. launched his 1968 Poor People's March to Washington.

Other scheduled stops were in West Helena, Ark.; Memphis; Cleveland; Youngstown, Ohio; and Pittsburgh. He planned to visit a remote health care clinic in Wise, Va.; talk about economic opportunity for young people growing up in Whitesburg, Ky.; then give a speech Wednesday at the Floyd County Courthouse in Kentucky where Kennedy spoke.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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