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The authenticity primary

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A recent Rasmussen poll raises some interesting questions about how voters perceive politicians. According to the poll, 33 percent of Democrats see Hillary Clinton as liberal — more than those who classify Barack Obama (31 percent) or John Edwards (21 percent) in the same way. Sixty-six percent identify Edwards as moderate or conservative.

If you've been paying attention to the candidates' positions, those numbers are surprising. Excluding the politically unviable Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel, Edwards is the Democrat who has positioned himself furthest to the left.

On the two major issues that will shape this year's election — Iraq and health care — the Democrats' positions on the war don't mean much in the primary. Each promises to end it, but any candidate who claims to know exactly how to do that is being disingenuous. On health care, Edwards and Clinton both promise changes that will require coverage for every American.

Outside these issues, the candidates have to be judged on how they are focusing their campaigns. Clinton's campaign has no discernible theme. Obama's rhetoric of a politics of hope might be inspiring, but it doesn't suggest anything specific. Edwards, on the other hand, has clearly geared his campaign toward poverty, an issue that's far left of the political mainstream.

So why do so many people think that Edwards is a moderate? One answer is that he has an authenticity problem. Voters don't associate a wealthy, white, Southern lawyer with advocacy for the country's largely black underclass. As the thinking goes, since Hillary is a woman and Obama is black, they must be more liberal than Edwards.

Votes based on image aren't necessarily unreasonable. As Garance Franke-Ruta has pointed out in the American Prospect, a female or black president would lend a sense of social empowerment to members of historically underrepresented groups.

Nevertheless, image votes favor the idea of authenticity at the expense of policy. Although Edwards speaks to the impoverished more directly than Obama, and although his presidency promises to be more beneficial to them, many poor people better identify with Obama because of his race.

Edwards' platform is politically risky for a reason besides his image: the election process is loaded against it. Although money is the name of the game, spending millions on a campaign doesn't square with helping the poor.

Each of the candidate has faced questions about donors — Clinton because of gifts from Norman Hsu, Obama because he has promised to wipe out the influence of lobbyists while accepting money from former lobbyists and spouses of lobbyists. But any candidate who pledges to stamp out poverty will have his financial activities subjected to especially intense scrutiny, particularly if he's a millionaire.

Edwards has endured some criticism for his work with Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that has established offshore tax shelters and invested in subprime mortgage lenders. Along with his general wealth, the connection has inspired some to rip Edwards as a hypocrite.

Certainly, Edwards should have been more careful not to work with a company that forecloses on poor homeowners, but that shouldn't negate the work he's been doing to bring attention to the poor. Engagement with high-finance is imperative for anyone who wants to be relevant in presidential politics. The system is enough to make a hypocrite out of anyone who takes a stand on class.

John C. Williams is associate editor of the Times. Max Brantley is on vacation.

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