Nothing is more important to a presidential candidate's success - other than being able to project oneself as a strong leader - than being viewed by the electorate and the news media as genuine.
The public, and especially reporters who have great sway in molding a candidate's public image, have little tolerance for disingenuous politicians, and, once identified as such, the label is both damaging and difficult to shed.
Unfortunately for John Edwards' White House ambitions, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, seems to be doing his darnedest to make the case that he is a wee bit of a phony. Whether fairly or not, Edwards' $400 haircut, his $491,000 income from part-time work at a Wall Street hedge fund specializing in the financial techniques that he decries, and now word he collected a $55,000 speaking fee for discussing the evils of poverty raises that question.
If Edwards were a conservative, free-market Republican, that would be one thing.
But the former trial lawyer has a $30 million fortune - not including a 100-plus acre, $6 million compound on which he lives - and is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination as the champion of the poor. He decries income inequity and pledges to narrow it.
And there's the rub.
The term "limousine liberal" was coined to describe those who claimed to represent the poor but were filthy rich - generally due to inherited money - and lived a lavish lifestyle. Edwards did make his own money - his father was a mill worker - and campaigns as the defender of the poor and the powerless, which he proudly proclaims as his roots.
In a Democratic primary in which the front-runners are Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - the most serious female and black presidential candidates in U.S. history - Edwards is by almost any measure the one striking the populist chord. He sees the world through the prism of class struggle - the ordinary folks versus the wealthy few who unfairly benefit at the expense of the many.
This view is best embodied in his view of international trade. Edwards is the most critical of free-trade agreements and corporate America. He focuses on the jobs that have been lost overseas - lesser skilled positions performed more cheaply in India than Indiana - and has used this stance to curry favor with organized labor.
Edwards dismisses the argument that those trade agreements have led to cheaper products for American consumers and an offsetting increase in better-paying jobs providing more sophisticated goods and services to those in other nations with whom the United States trades.
Yet, the "man of the people" image is a tough sell when he spends $400 for a haircut, whether or not he charges it to his campaign - which Edwards originally did, then later repaid with his own money.
One prominent Democrat, who gave Edwards $1,000 earlier this year, said he was reconsidering his support. "I didn't think I was buying him two and a half haircuts." The former financial backer said the episode demonstrated Edwards' lack of judgment and a blind spot about how it would play with voters.
Then there is Edwards' stint at the Fortress Investment Group, which netted him $491,512 for part-time work. Edwards said his work there was meant to teach him about the financial markets - not bad money for a learning experience.
The Fortress Investment Group, whose employees are his largest single source of campaign funds, has made a good deal of its money setting up offshore tax havens for corporations and wealthy individuals. Edwards' campaign rhetoric decries such financial vehicles, and on the stump he pledges to eliminate them.
Lastly is the recent disclosure that Edwards was paid $55,000 by the University of California's Davis campus for a speech where he advocated removing all financial barriers for students to attend college. Presumably that means he would favor lower tuition and fees - which was the source that paid for his talk.
There is no suggestion that he has done anything illegal, but it raises the obvious issue of how genuine is John Edwards. That is not a question a presidential candidate wants in the public's mind.