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He distilled Robbins' values this way in his late-summer, campaign kick-off speech: "Work. A fair shake for all and a free ride for none." There are echoes of Bill Clinton in that rhetoric, and Edwards would not distance himself from the comparison. Edwards hopes the Robbins story will sell in Iowa, where he would like to finish among the top three in the Iowa caucuses Jan.19, and in New Hampshire, where the primary falls a week later.

Another is director of music theater and television at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. "I felt like I had a bunch of parents." Kay Cameron, another classmate, felt the same way.And the unreliable foundation of the town's prosperity, textiles, was then as now under siege from overseas competitors.He also masks the fact that like so many who grow up in small towns, there was a yearning in him to escape its narrow confines.He left Robbins for college and law school and never looked back.The Robbins of today bears pale resemblance to the town of Edwards' youth, but his up-from-Robbins stump speech evokes the memory of the boy with silver-capped front teeth who moved to town from Georgia, settling into a modest gray ranch house on North Frye Street with his parents and younger brother and sister in 1966. Bragg, Robbins wasn't in any hurry to question the war in Vietnam.In his stump speech, Edwards presents himself as millworker's son and as "the first person in my family to go to college." Both characterizations reflect unfinished business in Wallace Edwards' life, aspirations taken up by his first-born.

Wallace Edwards' family was solidly middle class by the time it landed in Robbins, but the lack of college training limited the elder Edwards' advancement.

"My memories of growing up here are positive." Yet the residue of segregation was not hard to spot. But stubbornness and self-assuredness, two defining features of the adult Edwards' personality, had already started to emerge.

The announcement of Edwards' high school class graduation in June 1971 came under a headline reading, "Negro is Commencement Speaker at North Moore Graduation Monday." Bright, clean-cut kid Amid students at North Moore with star quality such as Brady and Cameron, Edwards was just another bright, clean-cut kid. Not one that would stand out in a crowd, at least not in high school," said W. A former football coach, Paul Mc Lendon, remembers a tough streak that allowed the 150-pound Edwards -- a four-sport athlete -- to hold his own against bigger players. "But he was a very tenacious young man." After high school, Edwards walked on with the freshman football squad at Clemson University in Clemson, S. -- his father's favorite school -- in a long-shot bid to win an athletic scholarship.

Another, his given name Johnny Reid Edwards, would be hailed as the greatest trial lawyer in North Carolina history; a man who knocked off an incumbent U. senator in his first political race; and someone who now happens to be running for U. "My mother told me that everything I did reflected on her," said Cameron, the Kennedy Center executive. You don't want to disappoint the town because everybody knew you." Edwards now wants everybody to know of Robbins, or at least the gauzy, rear-view mirror version, as the embodiment of the nation's fair-minded, middle-class ethic.

It is a richly drawn contrast not only between himself and President Bush ("the son of a millworker taking on the son of a president") but also between himself and some of his blue-blood Democratic challengers.

In employing Robbins as he does, of course, Edwards papers over the town's less attractive aspects, those shared by no small number of other Southern towns of the time.