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WASHINGTON — North Carolina Senator John Edwards launched into an attack on big pharmaceutical companies last Thursday at the “Take Back America” conference in Washington, D.C.

Getting on his populist mojo, Edwards told the left-leaning crowd that packed a ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel, “The Democratic Party has to stand up to the big drug companies, to the HMOs, and fight the fight for the American people.” He accused the corporations of “cutting secret deals,” “gouging consumers” and sponsoring “misleading advertisements,” and called for legislation that would prohibit drug companies from protecting their products from generic drug competition by filing “ridiculous new patents.”

His proposals for prescription drugs came after the standard opening of his stump speech, in which he contrasted his son-of-a-mill-worker, Main Street values with what he described as President Bush’s upper-class, Wall Street ones. “This president’s values are not the values of the American people,” he said, adding, “He honors wealth. We honor work.”

A trial attorney, Edwards employed his courtroom manner to good effect. His soft Carolina drawl, forcefully delivered, had just enough twang to give his indictments some tang, judging by the audience’s reaction of cheers and laughter. He also tried a bit of Southern storytelling, lampooning the unreality of some drug ads — which he said showed folks “running around the field, dancing every night with your spouse in the kitchen.”

“We live in the real world,” he deadpanned to guffaws.

It’s a good time for such political populism, some Democratic strategists argue. Even Will Marshall, president of the centrist Progressive Policy Institute — who criticized Vice President Al Gore’s populist turn during the 2000 presidential campaign as “empty populism without any real analysis” — praised the approach. “There’s a lot of well-founded anger and suspicion about corporate actors after Enron, other scandals and recent reports of top executives really looting companies,” Marshall told the Forward, adding “it’s more than fair game for Democrats.” The trick, Marshall said, “is to force higher standards of accountability on the actors,” but to do so “in a market-sensitive way” that doesn’t “undercut the innovation that made the American pharmaceutical industry the world leader.”

Six other Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt, former Vermont governor Howard Dean, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Reverend Al Sharpton and former Illinois senator Carol Moseley Braun, spoke at the conference, which was organized by a group called Campaign for America’s Future. The organizers appeared to be making the most of the appearance of the handsome Edwards, announcing the Tar Heel stater’s arrival on stage with the 1960s Monkees song “I’m a Believer.” As if on cue, Edwards reached the podium just as the verse “I’m in love… oooh!” blasted over the loudspeaker.

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The Bush White House has yet to name successors to two top administration aides, stirring up speculation about the jobs in Republican circles. Word is that there may not be any one person named to replace Adam Goldman, the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community. Instead, sources say, his duties may be parceled out among other staffers or may devolve in part to an outside organization, the Republican Jewish Coalition. Neither would anyone say who will replace Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, who is leaving to replace Mitch Daniels as director of the Office of Management and Budget. One possible candidate mentioned, however, is the White House’s deputy assistant for domestic policy, Jay Lefkowitz, a member of a Chevy Chase, Md., synagogue. That prospect was greeted with cheer by some. “Jay has been an active member of the Jewish community, someone who understands our issues and will be an important voice within the administration,” said one Jewish communal official, speaking on condition of anonymity. The White House press office did not return a call seeking comment.

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Bogeyman alert: At least three Democratic presidential candidates have taken to mentioning Attorney General John Ashcroft in their stump speeches — the conservative Christian enforcer of our anti-terrorism laws being tailor-made to draw jeers from liberal Democratic activist audiences.

Kerry has said on the stump, “When I am president of the United States, there will be no John Ashcroft as attorney general!”

During a recent New York speech, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman tried to deflect attention from his vote for the Patriot Act, a measure unpopular with liberals and civil libertarians, by mentioning the fact that he voted not to confirm Ashcroft.

Edwards told the “Take Back America” conference in Washington last week, “We cannot, in an effort to protect ourselves… let people like John Ashcroft take away our rights!”

Their treatment of the attorney general — in effect, raising him as a specter to galvanize the party base — is reminiscent of Republican attacks on Democratic New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a lightning-rod liberal whom the GOP has used time and again in fundraising letters to extract cash from its conservative party faithful. Interestingly, Clinton and Ashcroft have another thing in common besides their status as hated symbols: A devout Protestant like Ashcroft, Clinton publicly boosted the power of prayer Sunday in an interview with Barbara Walters of ABC’s “20/20.”

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