The hair, up close, is peppered with tiny strands of blond. Chestnut brown and so finely trimmed, mellifluous, smooth, and feathery, it could almost be a weave, the Platonic ideal as imagined by the Hair Club for Men. Along with the piercing blue eyes, slashing V-shaped smile, and a shimmering burgundy shirt tucked into stonewashed Levi's resting low on the hips, the hair completes the man: John Edwards, a populist Adonis, a golden god of a Southern Democrat.
But on a spring Friday in sleepy Adel, Iowa, as Edwards stands surrounded by pale, stern-faced farmers in plaid shirts and modestly coiffed housewives, the hair is looking a little too good. The news that he paid $400 to have it trimmed by a Beverly Hills stylist broke yesterday and now wafts across this makeshift meeting hall in a pizza joint. For the campaign, it's an unwelcome reminder of what people suspect to be Edwards's main weakness: a certain lightness of being that dovetails all too well with that viral YouTube video of the candidate preening for two minutes before a TV appearance. It's especially unfortunate given that the 54-year-old former senator from North Carolina is here to explain his plans for rural America, the things he'll do as president of the United States to make life better for working farmers and farm families. It's the hair versus the message and, at this moment, it's hard to know which will win.
Edwards paces the small platform, explaining how he'll fight corporate farming, funnel capital to rural schools and businesses, and expand broadband access to out-of-the-way places. The rural South is where he's from, after all—the town of Robbins, North Carolina, population 1,200. In America, he says, "people like me can come from nowhere, the son of a mill worker…and now be running for president of the United States and pay $400 for a haircut!"
The Iowans erupt in laughter, a great gale of relief. "You like that, do you?" Edwards says, grinning. A white-haired 56-year-old named Marilyn, who had noted beforehand that $400 haircuts are "harder for people from the Midwest to understand," turns and gives a furtive thumbs-up. "He's good!" she whispers. Indeed he is. By the time he's updated the crowd on his wife Elizabeth's battle with cancer and uttered his can't-lose, heat-seeking campaign line—"It's time for Americans to be patriotic about something other than war!"—Edwards has won over the room, totally and completely. Asked about the haircut by the Iowa press afterward, Edwards, hand on hip, eyes squinting in the sun, says, "My whole life has been spent standing up for people who have no voice, and I'll do that as long as I'm alive. It's a ridiculous amount of money for a haircut. I'm actually embarrassed by it."
The honesty is disarming, especially since the Beverly Hills stylist Joseph Torrenueva has already said that Edwards is a "longtime client"—it's no accident that he got a $400 haircut; he just got busted. But whatever: Edwards has transformed embarrassing news into a punch line and a moment of plainspoken humanity. For now, the message has won.
Less money, less star power
With less money and less star power than Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Edwards may look like a long shot to win his party's nomination. That's why he's been putting all his chips on the Iowa caucus, where a primary win in January 2008 could give him enough momentum to push through any possible Super Tuesday scenario on February 5. Again and again, I watch Edwards get thronged by moon-eyed supporters in Iowa — veterans, housewives, students, and union workers moved to goose bumps by his speeches, trying to touch the hem of his suit or look him in the eye with a personal message about Iraq or health care (a look Edwards returns with eyes narrowed earnestly, head cocked slightly to the side). He has by far the most established campaign organization in Iowa of any of the candidates, having first surged to national prominence there in 2004 and made 23 visits since then. By May, he was still number one in the Iowa polls, with 27 percent of Democrats supporting him.
What the Democrats of Iowa want, of course, is someone who can win in a general election. The dark cloud of Elizabeth's returning cancer has added Oprah-worthy drama—and a shade of uncertainty—to the campaign. But as Edwards has said, it's no reason to vote for him (or not to vote for him). As much as he declares himself the antidote to George W. Bush, it's what he shares with the Texan—known for whacking brush in Crawford and using Lone Star State grammar instead of what he learned at Andover and Yale—that could be his best hope for winning: Southern authenticity.
It's the "thang," as Edwards pronounces it in his hickory-smoked twang, that he believes lends him the innate credibility to connect with regular folks. It's also crucial to his strategy: As a guy who grew up going to a Baptist church, spent summers sweeping the floors of the Milliken textile plant where his dad once toiled for $35 a week, lettered in football in high school, and graduated from North Carolina State, Edwards promises he can peel away stubborn electoral votes from the Republican-dominated South—a feat that centrist Bill Clinton barely managed in the nineties with a Southern running mate. (Clinton won Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia in 1992 and won those states again minus Georgia in 1996.) Before that, you have to go back to Jimmy Carter, who in 1976 swept every state in the region except Virginia.
During a campaign stop in Charleston, South Carolina, where he spoke to the local longshoremen's union, Edwards tells me it was "impossible" for Massachusetts senator John Kerry to win in the South in 2004, given Bush's Southern bona fides. Edwards says he has that same advantage now. "And on the other side, it looks like at this moment, very likely, not somebody from the South." (That is, if Republican Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Law & Order hasn't entered the race.) That's no small selling point: If Edwards were to win the same states he and Kerry won, plus either Ohio or Florida and just one other Southern state, the Democrats would retake the White House.
But in the South, Edwards's good looks and polished oratory can sometimes obscure what's credible about him. And as Edwards himself observes in Four Trials, his 2004 book about fighting courtroom battles for children and families with personal injury, juries "rarely miss a trick, and probably never when it really is a trick. They take in every movement, fact, word, hesitation, and glance." Add to that $400 haircuts—not to mention the palatial house that he and his wife recently finished building outside Chapel Hill. With Edwards polling third among Democrats in South Carolina, where he was actually born (he moved to North Carolina when he was 12), he needs to prove he's got more than just a genuine accent—that, in fact, the heartfelt message and the perfect messenger are one and the same.
History hasn't always borne out Edwards's Dixie confidence. It's been hotly debated whether he would have won reelection to the Senate had he run again in 2004, given the pervasive resentment in North Carolina that he used his seat as a way station for national ambitions. While Edwards did well in the South Carolina Democratic primary in 2004, the Kerry–Edwards ticket not only didn't win a single Southern state, it didn't win Edwards's home state, his home county, or his hometown of Robbins. Edwards says people vote for a president, not a vice president, and he and Kerry have been at each other's throats over the finer points of that debate since they ceded the election to Bush. Edwards has openly blamed Kerry for not fighting back hard enough against the Swift Boat attacks, while Kerry's people have accused Edwards of failing to deliver Southern votes (though Kerry ignored the South until he chose Edwards as his running mate).
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Edwards likes to call himself the "transformational" candidate, the right man to radically change the country after the dark years of the Bush administration. But he is also, as a few weeks on the campaign trail make clear, the transformed candidate: In appearance and message, he's more combative, mature, and left-leaning than the one-term senator of 2004 whose image Edwards himself has dismissed as "plastic." Edwards says he's "evolved," freed now from Senate politics, focused and toughened by his wife's mortality.
He spent the last two years launching a volunteer group called One Corps and a poverty center at the University of North Carolina while honing his foreign-policy chops on tours of the Middle East, Africa, Russia, and China. Since he announced his candidacy in December 2006, sleeves rolled up and shoveling dirt in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Edwards has tacked ahead of Clinton and Obama in Iowa by rolling out remarkably detailed policy positions on health care, the environment, and rural poverty, delivering more substance in a couple of months than his two main rivals combined. Recent polls have shown Edwards beating all Republican rivals in a theoretical Election 2008, outpacing Rudolph Giuliani 49 to 43 percent, and leading all candidates among likely Democratic caucus-goers, who feel he is their most "electable" contender for the White House.
By apologizing for voting in 2003 to allow President Bush to invade Iraq, Edwards has made candor his presiding virtue, positing himself as the antidote to the prevarications of the Bush era (while giving himself a stick with which to wallop Clinton, who hasn't quite budged on her vote). He's also become much more stridently protectionist on trade, courting the labor vote by hiring campaign manager David Bonior, a former congressional majority whip and longtime union advocate who worked with Dick Gep-hardt on the congressman's 2004 presidential run. (Labor might help Edwards in key primary states, like Nevada and Bonior's home state of Michigan.) Edwards confessed to Bonior that his 2000 Senate vote supporting free trade with China was, like his war vote, a "mistake." Bonior says, "I don't want to compare it to religious conversion. But he obviously had all these pieces in him, these sensitivities and values, and they just needed to blossom and to grow."
Not changed as a human being
Edwards is careful, though, not to take the evolution narrative too far. "I certainly haven't changed as a human being," he tells me at his campaign headquarters in Chapel Hill. "My values are exactly what they've always been. I think the world has evolved. I think we live in a different world than we did in 2000, 2001. I think we live in a world where small, incremental change will not solve our problem. I think bold, transformational change—" He sits up and points to a handwritten poster on a wall meant to motivate telemarketing volunteers doing fund-raising. It reads: together we can transform our country. "That came from me!" he says.
One thing that has been consistent since Edwards began crafting a national message for the presidency in 2001 is his focus on poverty. Political consultant Bob Shrum convinced him to turn his stellar career as a trial attorney—he was legendary for his ability to convert arcane medical cases into Shakespearean melodramas, claiming the biggest settlement in North Carolina history—into a political tool rather than a black mark, an advertisement for a life spent fighting on behalf of the poor and infirm against faceless insurance companies and incompetent doctors. Edwards's focus on universal health care and raising the minimum wage is part of his appeal for black voters, who are crucial for winning the Democratic nomination, especially in South Carolina. The conventional wisdom is that no candidate ever talks about poverty unless he or she really means it. And it does seem that Edwards means it, even if, in early 2006, before he announced his run, he accepted a $55,000 honorarium to speak on the subject at the University of California, Davis, and received a $500,000 consulting check from a Wall Street hedge fund—two paydays that, some observers contend, threaten to undermine his poverty-fighting message.
Edwards's populism is also part of an aggressive strategy for winning the South, where he hopes to follow in the path blazed by Virginia's new Democratic senator, Jim Webb. During his 2006 run, Webb hammered the populist economic theme, and his victory has become a call to arms for a new Democratic charge at the South. "His message is not much different than mine," Edwards points out. "I campaigned for Webb, and his message sounded very similar."
How to win the gut voters
But Edwards admits he's depending on a segment of the population—white, working class—that's notoriously difficult to pin down. "I think a lot of these voters are what I call gut voters," he says. "They're not going to study the third level of your health care plan, you know. But they see you and they hear you and they think, 'I like that guy, I trust him.' Or they don't. I think the cultural connection is important in that regard. It creates a much easier bond of trust."
To help create that bond, Edwards has hired the same "rural liaison" Webb used — David Saunders, a bald, gravel-voiced Virginian who chain-smokes filterless Camels and goes by the nickname "Mudcat." Saunders — who also consulted on Mark Warner's successful 2001 bid for governor of Virginia — hires friends like bluegrass pickers Del McCoury and Ralph Stanley to play hay-bale campaign stops in the rural South, old-school barnstorming meant to connect with out-of-the-way voters. (Edwards's rural rollout started in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, in April.) Saunders serves as the undiluted id for the Edwards campaign.
"We're going to get some white males," he declares in his pungent accent. "The other candidates I've seen are looking at that same 19-state strategy. We're well into the twenties on our strategy." (In 2004, Kerry won 20 states, losing to Bush by a mere 34 electoral votes.) Saunders—rangy and loose-limbed with sun-baked skin and a perpetual grin—brands as "immoral" the idea of strategically bypassing the South to win the White House, as Clinton and Obama are likely to do, a move advocated in the 2006 book Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South. Its author, Thomas Schaller, argues that moral issues simply trump economic interests for working-class Southerners. "I can give you two examples of people who whistled past Dixie," Saunders yells. "President Gore and President Kerry!"
Webb v Edwards
But Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics and co-author of Divided America: The Ferocious Power Struggle in American Politics, says that poor and working-class whites—the main target of Edwards's populist message—constitute only about a fifth of the population in the South. Two-fifths of Southern voters now live in suburbs, he says, and "these are the people that Edwards has been suing. They don't look on him as the solution." And there's a crucial distinction between Webb and Edwards: Webb has a military background. A decorated Vietnam veteran, he was once secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan. (Edwards got a draft number in 1973, but the lottery had ended the year before.) When Republican mouthpiece Ann Coulter attacked Edwards with her "faggot" slur last March, the implication was that he doesn't possess the manly fortitude to protect America from danger. And surely Clinton will question his backbone as the campaigning gets bloodier. After all, she didn't apologize for her Iraq vote.
I ask Edwards how he'll convince voters—especially Southerners, for whom military culture is sacred—that he's strong enough to lead in the era of Al Qaeda and a looming nuclear Iran. "Strength comes from what's inside you," he says, dropping into a low, serious whisper. "Strength comes from people having a comfort with you, that you'll do the right thing under difficult circumstances, that you have the right value system, that you have the capacity to lead. 'Strength' is the word—not 'tough' or 'braggadocio' and all that chest-thumping. I think we've figured out that doesn't work. But I think a true internal strength, I think it matters in a leader."
Bob Kerrey, the former Nebraska senator who recruited Edwards for the North Carolinian's first Senate run in 1997, is skeptical of Edwards's view of strength: "You're not going to defeat them by showing them your inner strength," he told me. "You're going to defeat them by showing them your outer strength." Edwards maintains that fighting Islamic radicalism will be a top priority of his administration, but as part of a larger, more holistic view of American leadership that includes fighting global poverty through a $5 billion educational program. He would also strike the phrase "war on terror" from the U.S. foreign-policy vocabulary, criticizing the phrase as "high-level rhetoric" used by the Bush team "to enflame the American voters to support them." Edwards says his global travels in 2005 gave him "a depth that didn't exist before. I think when you combine them with the other things I've been doing and the things that have happened in my personal and my family's life—especially Elizabeth's trials, our trials together, her breast cancer—I think they've created an evolution, that I've continued to evolve and become stronger."
Elizabeth Edwards’ role
If anything makes the often enigmatic candidate more palpable to voters, it's his wife, Elizabeth. As every female supporter in Iowa says to me, if Edwards is married to a woman as smart and resilient as she is, then he must be a decent guy. When the two walked into the sunny courtyard of the Carolina Inn in March to announce the return of her cancer — after a 24-hour standstill at campaign headquarters, where staffers smiled forlornly at me and Edwards's senior adviser, Jennifer Palmieri, broke down in tears—it was the most unfiltered view of any presidential candidate that anybody is ever likely to see. "It was totally unrehearsed; it was just us," Edwards tells me, sitting in a hotel lounge in Des Moines prior to a speech before local Democrats. "We have a private world, but the us that the world saw at that press conference—that's us. That's who we are when we're just us. The conversation that Elizabeth and I had about her situation when she was diagnosed—if the whole world had seen it, they would have seen the same thing they saw at the press conference. I mean, that's who we are."
At 58, Elizabeth is more than Edwards's wife. She's the core of his political life. The two met in the early seventies at the University of North Carolina law school, where Elizabeth, the sophisticated, well-read daughter of a naval officer stationed overseas, was seen by classmates as much more likely to succeed than her husband. "I think she helped shape him politically," Shrum says. "She is a progressive, and I think he was much less political when he started out." Edwards, whose father is a Republican, rarely voted before running for office, although he says Robert Kennedy was an early political hero because he traveled through Appalachia addressing poverty and admitted he was wrong on Vietnam: "I think all of those were indications of maturity." As Edwards's key political adviser, Elizabeth is a major force behind the scenes, micromanaging details down to which tie he will wear and how he should respond to press questions. When Kerry joked during the 2004 primary campaign that Edwards was still in diapers while he was fighting in Vietnam, Elizabeth suggested heavy retaliation. (Her husband talked her out of it.) According to a former campaign staffer, she once dressed down an aide who questioned Edwards's judgment during a campaign meeting and fired three traveling chiefs of staff in a matter of a few weeks. It was she who pushed for a more sophisticated Web presence for the 2008 campaign, including the hiring of two bloggers who quit after coming under fire for their comments about religion. "Are we going to mess up and try things that don't work?" she told me in February in New Hampshire. "Yeah, we're going to, but it's because we're trying."
Elizabeth underplays her influence. "I just do mom things," she says of her official campaign duties. "John was home for several days, so I tried to cook the things he liked and stuff like that." I thought she might tell me her secret chicken-fried-steak recipe, but when pressed, she has a hard time remembering exactly what she cooked for him. That same afternoon, Edwards calls her up on stage during a town hall meeting to help explain an arcane point about environmental policy she told him in the car on the way to the rally.
To those concerned that Edwards won't be able to focus on running the country if Elizabeth falls seriously ill, he cites the death of their 16-year-old son, Wade, who was killed in 1996 when his Jeep flipped over on a highway near their North Carolina beach house. In the wake of the tragedy—the creation story of his political career—Edwards famously poured himself into his work, winning $25 million on behalf of nine-year-old Valerie Lakey, who was disemboweled when she sat on an open swimming-pool drain. It was the largest settlement in North Carolina history and one of his last cases. He was urged into politics by Elizabeth, who, after a long period of mourning, revived her own sense of purpose by undergoing hormone treatments in her late forties and having two more children, Emma Claire and Jack. (The oldest Edwards daughter, Cate, graduated from Princeton in 2004 and now attends Harvard Law School.)
"History is the best proof," Edwards says when I ask him what he has to say to voters who worry he won't be able to lead the country if his wife should die during his first month in office. "A few months after my son died, I tried probably the biggest case of my life and had to be completely focused, working 18 hours a day. Elizabeth was diagnosed with the recurrence of breast cancer—two, three weeks ago. The day after she was diagnosed, we went out of the spotlight and talked about it, and she and I both have been campaigning since that time. That's the best evidence of how I'll respond to personal challenges—what I've done in the past."
Edwards's response to his wife's terminal cancer—an unprecedented event in presidential campaign politics—cuts two ways, of course. Skeptics feel his and Elizabeth's ambition has trumped any sense of reality. The illness has lent his bid a faint air of now-or-never desperation, along with a kind of touchy-feely opportunism. "Well, I don't think we have all the time in the world to do what we want to do," Edwards admits to me. "But we both believe that this is what we're supposed to do with our lives. And so we're going to spend whatever time each of us has on this earth doing it."
Edwards is sipping on a jumbo-size soda from Bojangles' Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits in his Chapel Hill headquarters when I ask him if he truly believes a Democrat can win in the South, given how the white working class tends to vote. "Oh, I'll win more than one Southern state," he tells me. "I will win more than one Southern state. You remember we had this conversation."
According to Mudcat Saunders, the campaign isn't just aiming at poor rural whites in the South—but at poor rural whites across the country. "There's not a 50 cent difference in Bubba in Buncombe County, North Carolina, and Iowa or New Hampshire or wherever else. We are all from basically the same set of circumstances, and a rural campaign is not just a Southern campaign. It's about the heart and soul of rural America. And John believes strongly in it." There's also a largely unspoken asset to Edwards's candidacy, though it has gotten some play on the cable-news shows. In a general election, he has in his favor the simple fact that he is the white male Democrat — a safe alternative to any reservations that America — South, North, East, West — might have about a black man or a woman as president.
Resentment at home
But his message doesn't always play where it's meant to play, starting with his family seat. Many people in Robbins, North Carolina, resent Edwards for using the tiny town as a prop for his campaign, feeling he hasn't served their interests over the years. What would a hometown be without a little grousing? Wayne Gross, president of the Candor Hosiery Mills in Robbins for 20 years until it was shut down in 2005, would seem to be a prime target voter for Edwards's message. He employed Edwards's father, Wallace, for five years as a consultant ("He's a real nice guy," Gross says), and his factory jobs were shipped off to China and Pakistan, leaving a smoking crater in the local economy. Despite Edwards's protectionist stance—not to mention a relatively conservative view on gay marriage and a call for Mexican immigrants to learn English—Gross, a registered Republican, simply doesn't buy Edwards. Asked if he thought Edwards was a real small-town North Carolinian, he says, "I think the accent's real."
The fact is, Edwards is a very specific type of real Southerner, a cultural and political world apart from somebody like Gross, whose own path from a hardscrabble housing project to mill president was less socially mobile. Edwards—who majored in textile sciences in college but then went on to law school in Chapel Hill—is a product of the economic booms of the past 20 years in places like Raleigh, Charlotte, and Atlanta. After two decades as the most successful trial attorney in North Carolina state history (with a net worth as high as $60 million), Edwards has a decidedly New South profile, a peculiar blend of country flavor and newly minted wealth. He prefers white wine with his NCAA March Madness, imported suits with his GMC truck.
No regrets over new home
Fairly or not, to critics and many locals, Edwards's new estate—a 28,200-square-foot, $6 million affair a few miles outside of Chapel Hill—has become a potent symbol of hypocrisy when placed against his political message of personal sacrifice, environmental conservation, and economic division. Top aides were furious that the Edwardses decided to build it just as they were launching the campaign. Elizabeth has said she has no regrets; she worked closely with an architect to design the house, down to the wide-plank pine floors and soapstone fireplace. (It also has a 1,762-square-foot room called "John's Lounge," two performance stages, a pool, and basketball and squash courts.)
Edwards's close friend and former law partner, David Kirby, who was his neighbor in an upscale section of Raleigh in the nineties, says the family built the house out of a desire for privacy, a reprieve from the fishbowl of political life. "Every Southern kid's dream is to have the country estate," he says. "You have your 40, 50 acres and you've got your own little private world there." Saunders adds, "It's done swank. He built it as his final house. And he can afford it. If he wants to build him a fine house, what's that got to do with anything?" "I've lived the American dream," Edwards explains when I ask him about it. "No one ever gave me anything, and I'm proud of what I've been able to do." Then he adds: "And I'm particularly happy for Elizabeth's sake now, that she has a nice place to live."
The strange thing about Edwards is that he can seem more real onstage than he does in person. Unlike Bill Clinton, of whom Edwards was once thought to be the second coming, Edwards doesn't exude jocularity or bathe you in Bubba love. But by our third meeting, he seems determined to prove he's spontaneous. "I do have to admit that the haircut line came out of nowhere," he tells me the evening after his speech in Adel, Iowa, guffawing at the thought of it. "I was literally in midsentence and I thought, 'What about that?' I was just saying it. It got a good response from the crowd, though. I think anytime you're yourself, you're better."
Connecting with people
Edwards's greatest talent, his ability to connect to groups of people in contained, jury-like settings, is what he clings to. Gordon Fischer, a lawyer in Des Moines who chaired the Iowa Democratic Party in 2004, remembers Edwards wowing Iowans in living-room house parties during the last election, as he surged from nowhere in the caucus. Still, Fischer says, "I got to know all the candidates pretty well—except Edwards. I got the sense that he was guarded. He was extremely nice, but I just felt I never got to know him."
When I ask Edwards if there's a side of him the public can't see, he says, mindful of the $400 haircut and the massive estate, "I think less and less so. I think three or four years ago that wouldn't have been true, but I think there's not much of me they don't see now." In other words, that was the real Edwards in Adel, stripped of artifice. It's the point he's continually trying to hammer home in 2007: There is no difference between the message and the man. I ask whether he's overcome the perception of him as a Ken doll. "Probably not 100 percent," he says.
For now, Edwards has only to convince the Democratic primary voters in Iowa. With the format of the primaries potentially recalibrated—many states are proposing to push their primaries to within a week of the Iowa caucuses—Iowa's importance only seems to grow. Bob Kerrey, despite his criticisms, thinks Edwards can win it all. And when I mention that money might determine who wins in the primaries, Edwards scoffs. "Will it?" he says. "I've been through a presidential campaign, as you know, and I've been through a campaign where I didn't win and I was outraised, but I didn't lose to the person who outraised me."
In 2004, Edwards was outraised by former Vermont governor Howard Dean, whose burst of popularity didn't last. Edwards came out of that with the highest positive polling numbers of any candidate who passed through Iowa, and won 32 percent of the vote there after Kerry's 38 percent. And he never left. He might not get the huge throngs that Obama and Clinton get. But the Edwards crowds aren't just starry-eyed gawkers—they're diehards. They're believers, come hell or high-priced haircut.
The day after the speech in Adel, at a house party in Indianola, 30 miles south of Des Moines, Edwards uses his haircut for a punch line again—"We're not against people doing well; we want people to do well—maybe well enough to pay $400 for a haircut!"—and it goes over like gangbusters. He thanks the crowd for thinking of his family during Elizabeth's health trials. He says the line about being patriotic about something other than war.
The message wins again. For now.
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