When he ran for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, John Edwards, who had gained fame as one of the nation’s most successful trial lawyers, was the darling of many in the legal community, which opened its checkbooks and poured money into his campaign.
But this time around, Mr. Edwards is facing tough competition for those dollars.
While he is still No. 1 in the eyes of many trial lawyers and continues to depend heavily on donations from them, the other lawyers running for the 2008 Democratic nomination — Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr. — are making inroads into his financial base, in part because the leading candidates’ positions are so similar on many issues of interest to lawyers.
“John Edwards got a lot of people engaged the first time around, but now there are a lot more places to put their money,” said Kirk Wagar, a Miami trial lawyer at Wagar, Murray & Feit, who supported the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004 but is now supporting Mr. Obama.
As of the end of June, donations from lawyers accounted for little more than a fourth of the $23 million raised by Mr. Edwards. By comparison, lawyers donated roughly half the $12 million he had raised by the end of the first half of 2003, two and a half months before he officially declared his candidacy.
Still, it is hard to overstate lawyer donations’ continuing importance to Mr. Edwards’s campaign. While he may trail Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama in the polls and in overall fund-raising, he is ahead, though slightly, in such contributions. Through the first two quarters of this year, he had received $6.5 million from lawyers, compared with $6.3 million for Mrs. Clinton and $5.5 million for Mr. Obama.
In fact, of his campaign’s top 20 donors, 15 are from law firms and 12 from the plaintiffs’ bar. No other single industry accounted for more than 2 percent of the $23 million he raised through the first two quarters. Mr. Obama, who raised $59 million, and Mrs. Clinton, who raised $63 million, have tapped a far broader range of sectors.
Mr. Edwards, who has repeatedly criticized Mrs. Clinton for refusing to turn away donations from lobbyists, was asked at the Democratic debate in Chicago on Tuesday about his own fund-raising among lawyers. He drew a distinction by saying the job of lobbyists “is to rig this system against all of you.”
Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Edwards campaign, said the candidate was “proud to receive support from people from all walks of life.”
“We’re proud his former colleagues in the legal community recognize his willingness to fight the tough fights and to consistently win,” Mr. Schultz said.
At the recent convention of the American Association for Justice, formerly the American Association of Trial Lawyers, all three of the leading Democratic candidates spoke, as did Mr. Biden and a fifth hopeful, Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico. By all accounts the loudest and warmest applause was reserved for Mr. Edwards.
“He’s a favorite son,” said Linda Lipsen, chief lobbyist for the association. “He’s in our family.”
But other candidates in this Democratic field are often just as strong as Mr. Edwards on issues important to the trial lawyers: the Bush administration’s efforts to cap damage awards, to steer more legal disputes away from the courts and into binding arbitration, and to adopt what the lawyers see as pro-business regulatory changes.
Philip Feldman, a San Francisco lawyer who co-founded Lawyers for Obama, said: “The legal community is well represented in each camp. I don’t think that John Edwards has all the trial lawyers sewn up.”
Even the immediate past president of the trial lawyers’ association, Kenneth M. Suggs, from Mr. Edwards’s native state, South Carolina, is supporting an Edwards rival, Mr. Biden.
Mr. Edwards does, however, have a hard core of trial lawyers who have supported him throughout his career and continue to do so. At the top of the list is another former president of the trial lawyers’ association, Frederick M. Baron, one of the nation’s most successful plaintiffs’ lawyers, whose firm generated hundreds of millions of dollars by suing manufacturers of asbestos and other industrial products.
Mr. Baron, who did not respond to a request for an interview, is Mr. Edwards’s finance chairman and has made his Hawker 800 corporate jet available to the candidate at discount rates. Through 2004, he and his former law firm had donated $407,000 to Mr. Edwards’s senatorial and presidential campaigns and his political committees, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, in Washington. This year, Mr. Baron and his wife have donated $9,200 to the Edwards presidential candidacy, while his former law firm has donated $23,000.
Another longtime Edwards supporter, Jere Locke Beasley, an Alabama lawyer who helped win an $11 billion damage award against ExxonMobil, said fund-raising was more difficult this year.
“The economy is so bad, it affects fund-raising,” said Mr. Beasley, whose firm, Beasley Allen, has donated $59,100 to Mr. Edwards’s campaign. “Then you’ve got Hillary Clinton, who has unlimited access to money, and Barack Obama is a new guy. But I do think that John is in better shape than four years ago.”
Fern Hurst, a New York philanthropist who is a leading backer of Mr. Edwards and is holding a fund-raiser for him today at her home in Aspen, Colo., said the Democratic field this year “is so full, and the candidates are so good.”
“There’s a lot of competition,” Ms. Hurst said, “and I also think a lot of people are sitting it out, waiting to see what happens in the primaries. But I find there are people supporting him and expressing doubts about the other candidates.”