NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (Reuters) -- Hurting in opinion polls and haunted by charges of lavish personal spending, Democrat John Edwards took his presidential campaign on Monday to some of the most impoverished parts of the country.
With America's poor the crux of his campaign, the former vice presidential candidate launched an eight-state tour in New Orleans, a city that exposed U.S. poverty to a global audience following Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.
His focus on poverty challenges his top Democratic rivals, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and enables Edwards to present himself as a leader with a cause bigger than his own ambition, analysts said.
"This is not a political strategy. This is a huge moral issue facing America," Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina and the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, said in New Orleans late on Sunday.
Edwards is third among Democrats in national opinion polls ahead of the November 2008 elections, behind leader Clinton of New York and Obama of Illinois. But he is strong in the crucial early-voting state of Iowa, where he leads many state polls.
Edwards, 54, has used his own story -- his father was a mill worker and he was the first child in his family to go to college -- to identify himself with people of modest means.
But he has been stung by criticism that lavish spending on a new mansion in North Carolina and on $400 he spent on a haircut compromised his stand as an anti-poverty champion.
Edwards started the four-day tour on Sunday in the poor, mostly black, Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, whose once-submerged neighborhoods remain largely deserted.
On a brief walk through the district, he and his wife Elizabeth met Henry Phipps, 63, who lives in a government-issued trailer as rebuilds his house flooded nearly two years ago.
"You getting any help paying for it (the house)?" Edwards asked.
"Nah. I ain't getting no help," said Phipps, who said he had owned a bar and other properties before the storm and is now retired.
"We're proud of you," Edwards said.
"Working poor: two words that should never be used in combination in America," Edwards later told a few dozen people gathered at the nearby Martin Luther King Charter School.
"A lot of Americans think of people who are struggling on low incomes as people who do not want to work. And that is complete nonsense," he said.
The U.S. government defines poverty as an annual income of about $20,000 for a family of four, and Edwards argues it is unacceptable that 37 million Americans fall under that standard.
But analysts said his strategy could backfire in a country where many voters see poverty as due to bad individual choices and for many middle class voters it is not a core issue.
"To the extent that they (voters) think poverty is an issue they think it's a poor, black person's fault," said history professor William Jelani Cobb at Spelman College in Atlanta.
Even among poor voters, Edwards struggles to match Clinton and Obama. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed him trailing Clinton by 45 percentage points and Obama by 10 percentage points among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents with household incomes below $20,000.
Edwards will include stops in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Memphis and in Arkansas, Tennessee, and Kentucky.