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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Edwards Finds Another Orange County

July 18, 2004|James Rainey and Jean Pasco | Times Staff Writers

Sen. John Edwards bounded on stage Saturday afternoon at the venerable Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach planted his feet firmly and told an audience of about 400 that he had arrived at a special place, one he had been describing for more than a year.

"Many of you who heard me during the presidential primaries; heard me talk about one America where people struggled to get by, struggled to pay their bills, can't save any money," said Edwards, the presumed Democratic vice presidential candidate.

After a short pause, he added: "Well, this is the other America, right here."

With multimillion-dollar yachts bobbing nearby in Newport Harbor and a tanned and fit-looking crowd enjoying a $1,000-a-plate luncheon, knowing laughs rose all around.

Not only was Edwards visiting the land of the "haves," described so often in his signature "Two Americas" speech, he was breaching what one local Democrat called the unseen "red line." In his quest to unseat President Bush, he had come to Orange County -- once inhospitable territory for Democrats.

"Yes, we've done quite well, right here in the heart of what some people might call Bushland," Wylie Aitken, chairman of the Democratic Foundation of Orange County, said of a fundraiser that brought in about $500,000 for the party's cause.

As Edwards and his local backers enjoyed their party in the expansive banquet room, some Republican regulars at the 56-year-old club -- onetime haunt of actor and conservative activist John Wayne -- said it seemed like their world was temporarily spinning a bit off its axis.

"When I drove in and saw the signs, I just kind of laughed," said one young Republican businessman, lunching in Duke's Place, the club bar that overlooks sparkling Newport Harbor. Turning to his lunch mate, another Republican, he said: "I almost called you and asked if we should go someplace else."

Republicans account for 48.5% of the county's 1.4 million registered voters. Democrats claim just 30.7%. That amounts to a 250,000-vote advantage for the GOP.

But in years past, the county was even more of a Republican fiefdom, with the Balboa Bay Club as its undeclared capital. A list maintained by the club recorded as guests five Republican presidents: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Its board members included former Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the first leader of the GOP's contemporary conservative movement.

But both Orange County and the Balboa Bay Club have changed.

The growth of the Latino population in the county's north end, in particular, has increased Democratic registration and led to the election of more party members to local and state legislative offices.

As for the Bay Club, it entered a new era 16 months ago, when a new hotel and other facilities opened to the public.

Edwards, a multimillionaire trial lawyer before he became a U.S. senator from North Carolina, looked right at home at the club in his blue blazer and khaki pants. His audience also appeared well-heeled.

But Edwards -- picked by presumed Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John F. Kerry this month to be his running mate -- said he and his listeners shared the values of most Americans. "We believe in a country where everybody should have a chance to do well, where everybody can raise their kids in an environment where they know that tomorrow will be better than today," Edwards said.

In his 11-minute address, Edwards talked about the "moral responsibility" of lifting the 35 million Americans in poverty to a better life. He repeated the Democrats' pledge to build a strong military and strong international alliances, "so no young man or woman is ever sent to war needlessly because America has decided to go it alone." And he said the GOP's talk of values paled in comparison with the values Kerry had shown by volunteering for combat in Vietnam.

The crowd particularly seemed to like his assertion that "we need a commander in chief like John Kerry, who will lead the world, not bully it."

After the Newport Beach event, Edwards flew to Florida, where he has two fundraisers scheduled today. Kerry took the day off in Nantucket, Mass., to go kite-surfing as four boats crammed with reporters and television crews looked on.

*

Times staff writer Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

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