A Last Hurrah At 63, Former Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards - Who Makes Light Of Things Like Betting, Womanizing And Corruption Trials - Is Going For The Gusto One More Time. Of Course, On His Arm Is A 26-year-old Nursing Student Named Candy. . . .

Posted: June 01, 1991

LEWISBURG, La. — Four men in work pants are sipping cold beer in a church hall when Edwin Edwards bursts through the door. He strides toward their table as if he's known them all his life.

"Who's got the cards?" he asks in his Cajun lilt.

The men chuckle appreciatively: They know Edwards gambles a much bigger game.

After all, this is the silvery-haired three-term former governor of Louisiana, the state's most flamboyant politician, the only candidate who jokes openly about his betting and womanizing, and the man who just this day greeted the proud owner of a new seafood market by asking, "What is this? It's not a whorehouse?"

At 63, the unholy, inimitable Edwin W. Edwards is making a comeback. After two corruption trials, a first-ever election defeat and a four-year hiatus of sorts, Edwards is on the campaign trail again.

He's running for governor, and he's running with gusto: flirtatious and funny and full of himself, if older and more subdued than he was in his heady political heyday.

Edwards was the three-term congressman who successfully defended a $10,000 cash gift that his wife accepted from a South Korean lobbyist with what amounted to: So what?

Edwards was the Catholic governor who once told a newspaper editor in the state's northern bastion of Baptists that he doubted that Jesus died on the cross and was resurrected.

And Edwards was the tell-all candidate so confident of his 1983 election that he said he couldn't lose unless he was caught "in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."

That line remains his most-repeated shocker, but with Edwards, there are so many that almost any day will reap a few. One recent weekend, as he talked to a reporter about a book that claimed he once made love with six women in one night, Edwards smiled knowingly.

"No, it wasn't that way," he said. "He (the author) was gone when the last one came in."

Twenty years after he was first elected governor, Edwards remains a standout in American politics. The world has changed - even Louisiana has changed - but much about Edwards remains the way he was in 1971, when he became heir to the colorful, populist political tradition of Huey and Earl Long.

Edwards was a natural for the part: the son of a poor tenant farmer and a midwife, a self-made man of down-home Cajun charm and a talent for political deal-making. He portrayed himself as a hero to minorities, the poor and the working class - groups that remain a solid base of support.

Edwards was governor from 1972 to 1980, when the economy was booming, and he was widely viewed as an effective leader. State law prohibits serving more than two consecutive terms, so Edwards sat out a round, then was voted back in.

As governor, Edwards has been investigated by at least eight grand juries, but his real downfall came when he spent months on trial - twice - on corruption charges. In one trial, a casino official testified he had collected on the governor's $200,000 gambling debt by showing up at the governor's mansion to be handed a suitcase filled with cash.

Even so, Edwards was acquitted both times. He grew increasingly unpopular, however, as he spent time in a courtroom while the economy soured and such problems as the high school dropout rate got worse. By the time the 1987 campaign was at its peak, Edwards was weary and demoralized.

He was out-polled in that primary by Charles "Buddy" Roemer, a Harvard- educated technocrat who called his reform campaign "the Roemer Revolution." Under Louisiana law, the two men would have gone on to a general-election runoff, but Edwards, uncharacteristically, gave up.

These days, much of the old Edwards zest is back. He calls his campaign ''the Solution to the Revolution" and travels the state cutting ribbons and handing out flyswatters, cracking jokes and blasting Roemer. So far, eight others are campaigning for the Oct. 19 open primary - in which candidates of all parties run together - including David Duke, a Republican state representative and ex-Klansman. But Edwards counts Roemer, a newly converted Republican, as his strongest challenger.

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Holding court at a Democratic crawfish boil one recent night in New Orleans, the brown-eyed, still-handsome Edwards eats and greets with ease. Again and again, he is able to shell a crayfish, suck the meat out, and slide his hand through a napkin just in time to give a hearty squeeze to a supporter. Not a drop of goo splatters on his pressed blue shirt, his bright red tie or his supporters.

"Governor, I've voted for you every time you've run," says one loyalist.

"This may be your last, best time," Edwards reminds him.

Asked about his issues, Edwards tells of plans to put lottery profits into health care for the elderly and education, hold a constitutional convention to rewrite tax laws, and build an airport between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

'BROKEN PROMISES'

At the crayfish boil, he rails on about Roemer's "broken promises" and shows his audience a newspaper story reporting that Roemer made Japan's new consul general wait more than two months for an appointment.

"I woulda been at the airport to meet him," Edwards declares. "I'da brought him a bag of crayfish. I'da had one of our marching bands meet him and escort him down the hall. He woulda thought he was a Cajun before he got to the ticket counter."

On the road three days later, as he rides past the bayous and crayfish ponds of Cajun country, Edwards points to a bridge "I built" when he was governor. He points to the unkempt grass - another broken promise by Roemer, he sneers.

On this hot Saturday morning, the governor stops first in Crowley, the small town where he got his start in law and local politics. As he talks to those gathered for a ribbon-cutting at a funeral home, he praises the owners but makes a request of the audience:

"At least wait until after November before you do business here."

Another crowd is delighted. Edwards hustles off. By the next stop, for a ribbon-cutting at Frenchie's Seafood Market, it's clear the woman of this campaign is 26-year-old Candy Picou, a nursing student with the slender, blond looks of a magazine cover girl. Edwards shares a peanut bar with her. Picou plants a kiss on his lips.

'TWO PHILOSOPHIES'

"There are two philosophies," Edwards, who was divorced in 1989, reflects later. "Either a man my age should be associated with a nurse. Or a man my age should be with the prettiest young girl he can find.

"I've combined both - and found an attractive young nurse."

What's changed this time around is that for all his enduring humor and high jinks, Edwards is looking older - age spots, thinning hair - and sounding more serious and humble. Not terribly humble. But his invincibility is long gone.

"The times are more serious and require more of a serious mind," he says. ''It's hard to laugh and joke when people are out of work and businesses are closing."

Edwards says it feels good to be in the political thicket again - and several political analysts suggest that's why he's running: to compensate for the misery of his 1987 race, to do it once more and do it right.

"When I heard he was running, at first I thought it was a line he was using to pick up girls," says John Maginnis, publisher of the Louisiana Political Review and author of The Last Hayride, about Edwards' third gubernatorial race.

"I think he doesn't want to let go of being the number-one populist in the state," Maginnis says. "He's been running for governor since he was 16, and when he stops, he'll die or feel old."

Edwards says he announced when he realized that Roemer's edge was slipping and that he could win. If he loses, the 1991 campaign will be his last hurrah, he says.

"If I am successful," Edwards says, "I hope to do a good enough job to run again" in 1995. "I will then have been governor 10 percent of the time we've been a state."

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