By Ned Barnett
RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - John Edwards doesn't dispute he was a cad, but he's defiant that he's not a criminal.
And it appears this may be one point in which the disgraced former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee may get some sympathy in his home state and beyond.
John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a conservative North Carolina think tank, said Edwards may be right.
"To act like a heel is not to be a criminal," Hood said. "We have to distinguish between Edwards' disgusting behavior and allegations of criminality."
Edwards was indicted Friday on six federal charges related to cash gifts. The money was used to cover up an extramarital affair he had while seeking the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. A trial has been set for July 11, though it is expected to be pushed back, perhaps by several months.
"I will regret for the rest of my life the pain and the harm that I've caused to others," Edwards said at a court appearance in Winston-Salem Friday. "But I did not break the law. And I never, ever thought that I was breaking the law."
The gifts that allegedly violated campaign finance laws were not given to the Edwards campaign, but to his girlfriend, Rielle Hunter, and a former aide, Andrew Young. Prosecutors say the gifts were an attempt to circumvent election laws. Edwards lawyers say the gifts were an attempt to keep the affair hidden from Edwards' wife, Elizabeth.
Indications are that his defense is finding support in the court of public opinion. Some question whether the government is over-reaching in bringing criminal charges in a sordid, but nonetheless personal matter.
In North Carolina, some people cautioned against a rush to judgment and others were concerned that Edwards defense may turn a broad abuse of political funding into a narrow debate about campaign finance laws.
Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina, a group focusing on ethics, money and politics, said, "There can be cases where giving to something other than the campaign should be regulated. Whether this is one of those cases is in dispute. It's not a slam dunk."
Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic political consultant who has campaigned against corruption in North Carolina state government, said the disturbing issue in the Edwards case was the potential for political blackmail.
"The stakes here are much bigger than the narrow legal grounds the defense team wants us to focus on," he said.
If Edwards had been elected, Sinsheimer said, those who helped conceal his affair could have asked for political favors and influenced appointments.
Outside of North Carolina, the legal basis of the Edwards indictment also has drawn questions.
A Washington Post editorial on Friday said, "a criminal case based on this novel application of the law goes too far ... . It is troubling that the Justice Department would choose to devote its scarce resources to pursuing this questionable case."
The lawyer and legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said on PBS's Charlie Rose show Friday night that the government's case appears "murky" and "legal murkiness helps the defense."
For his defense, Edwards has assembled an all-star team: Gregory B. Craig, former White House counsel to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama; James P. Cooney III, regarded as one of North Carolina's finest trial attorneys; and Wade Smith, his former mentor, also known as dean of the North Carolina defense bar.
And, of course, there is Edwards himself, a smooth courtroom speaker with a gift for making juries see a case as he sees it.
Whatever the outcome, the indictment deepens disappointment for those who had put their faith in Edwards, Sinsheimer said.
"For anyone inside the Edwards world, those who volunteered for him or gave money to him, to see their candidate end up facing criminal charges has to be a very disillusioning experience," he said.
(Editing by David Bailey)