In the last presidential election, John Edwards had the powerful support and deep pockets of the nation's trial lawyers behind him. But when the lawyers gather for their winter conference today in Miami Beach, it will be Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) delivering the meeting's keynote speech.
Edwards, a trial lawyer who became a senator and now a presidential candidate, will be there, too. But the North Carolina Democrat no longer has a lock on the backing of the lawyers. This time around he will be battling it out with others in the Democratic field, who are seen as sympathetic to plaintiffs and their attorneys.
"John is certainly respected by every trial lawyer in the country," said Joseph W. Cotchett, a lawyer from the San Francisco area who helped raise more than $33,000 for Edwards in the 2004 cycle. "Many people though are looking at the bigger picture here."
Battle for hearts and minds
Thomas V. Girardi, a Los Angeles personal injury lawyer who helped raise more than $230,000 for Edwards as finance co-chairman of his 2004 bid, agreed. Girardi hosted a luncheon last month for Biden and said he intends to do the same for Edwards and for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
In the last election, Girardi said, "Senator Edwards was a much better candidate for the issues we care deeply about." Now, Edwards, Biden, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Clinton "all are very positive in terms of the philosophical view," he said. "So you have a different situation with respect to our support."
Edwards continues to work hard to win over trial lawyers. "He's getting good support from them," campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. "I wouldn't read too much into the leanings of any one person."
Winning the backing of trial lawyers is a significant coup for Democratic candidates. The 55,000-member American Association for Justice, which advocates for trial lawyers, ranks fifth on a list of the nation's 100 largest donors since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The group's members gave more than $27 million to political candidates during that period, with 90 percent going to Democrats.
Fred Baron, a Dallas-based trial lawyer who leads Edwards's fundraising efforts, as he did in the last campaign, said this year may be different, but support from the legal community has not softened.
"When we started four years ago, we really did rely very heavily on trial lawyers," Baron said. Now Edwards "has a much broader base of support than that one community."
Other Democratic candidates have worked hard to win support from trial lawyers. Obama has recruited Julianna Smoot, who served previously as Edwards's finance director and on the staff of the lawyers association. Biden's finance director, Chris Koerner, has also worked for the group.
Candidate looks to diversify
Edwards was a principal beneficiary of the group's giving in the 2004 campaign. Lawyers' contributions accounted for almost two-thirds of the money he raised during the first quarter of 2003, when he surprised pundits and rivals by outraising the rest of the field. By the end of the campaign, more than $10 million had flowed to Edwards from lawyers, many of whom were plaintiffs' attorneys.
They were giving to one of their own. In the mid-1980s, Edwards developed a reputation as a skilled attorney who won significant damage awards for his clients. A North Carolina legal journal calculated that, in the two decades before he joined the Senate, Edwards won $152 million in 63 lawsuits.
His legal career made him a target for Republicans, especially when he became Sen. John F. Kerry's running mate in the 2004 presidential campaign.
This time around, Edwards's aides say, he is expanding his base of support, also focusing on unions, antiwar activists and others. Baron said Edwards has seen an increase in donations from Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley.
"Money is coming from all areas," Baron said.
Biden drawing a second look
But the quest for lawyers' money has continued. Four years ago, Baron shuttled Edwards around the country on his private jet to introduce him to other lawyers. Now, Baron is working to reinforce Edwards's standing with some of his backers from the last campaign.
One of those is Greg Allen, who said he was won over by Edwards four years ago. Contributions to Edwards by members of Allen's Alabama law firm totaled more than $50,000 in the last cycle, and Allen remains an avid supporter.
"I like him and I trust him," he said.
But others, such as Todd Smith, a Chicago trial lawyer, say they are looking around. Smith's firm raised more than $12,000 for Edwards and donated $50,000 to his leadership committee in 2004. But Smith said he simply cannot ignore the work Biden has done on the Senate Judiciary Committee to fight proposals that aimed to shield health-care providers and other businesses from legal liability.
"Because of that long-standing, clear, unwavering approach, he's deserving of support," Smith said.
John Cooney, another Chicago lawyer whose firm directed more than $50,000 to Edwards's PAC, said none of the candidates "has demonstrated more loyalty to my clients" than Biden.
"In some years, there is one candidate who draws everyone's attention," Cooney said. "This year, there seems to be a plethora of very good candidates."