Thank you, Ann Coulter, for boosting the principled but media-neglected presidential candidacy of John Edwards. Like many others, upon hearing that she had used an address at a major conservative convention to call Edwards a “faggot,” I quickly clicked to his home page to see his campaign’s reaction — and was happily diverted to more substantive stuff, such as his firm support of universal healthcare and an end to the war in Iraq. No wonder Coulter hates him: Edwards is a Democrat who believes in the progressive heritage of his party and is not afraid to tell the world.

“I want to say something about my party,” Edwards said in a speech at UC Berkeley on Sunday. “I’m so tired of incremental, careful caution. Where is our soul?” He was referring to, among other issues, the party’s failure to deal boldly with “the bleeding sore that is Iraq.”

Unlike rival Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, he has forthrightly apologized for his Senate vote to authorize the war and called for ending it, starting with “immediately” cutting troop levels by half and then withdrawing all troops within the next 12 to 18 months. In a pointed rebuke to the Democratic leadership of Congress, Edwards states on his website, “We don’t need non-binding resolutions; we need to end this war, and Congress has the power to do it. They should use it now.”

On domestic issues, Edwards has hewed to the progressive line he maintained in the 2004 campaign, warning about the growing income inequality in the “two Americas.” As opposed to the Clintons, who still insist that they solved the poverty problem with Bill’s putting an end to the federal welfare program, Edwards points out correctly, “Every day, 37 million Americans wake in poverty.” Stating that “our response to that reality says everything about the character of America,” Edwards has called for a national program to eliminate poverty instead of leaving the poor to the tender mercy of the states as called for in the Clinton welfare reform.

It is also refreshing for a politician to invoke the image of Jesus, as Edwards did Monday, not as a divisive symbol of intolerance but rather as the inspiration for social justice and peace. “I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs,” he said. “I think he would be appalled, actually.”

As he did in the 2004 campaign as the Democrats’ vice presidential candidate, Edwards has once again made relief for the struggling middle class a signature issue, strongly attacked tax breaks for the rich and the mindless globalization that is widening the class divide. He is equally strong on environmental issues, following 2004 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore’s leadership on global warming, and he has had the courage to bluntly oppose the Clinton-era “don’t ask, don’t tell” hypocrisy on gays in the military.

“Gay men and women have continually served our country with honor and bravery, and we should honor their commitment and never turn away anyone who is willing to serve their country because of sexual orientation,” he said. These words were of particular resonance, coming on the heels of the announcement by the first U.S. Marine seriously wounded in Iraq that he is gay. Or, in Coulter’s parlance, “a faggot.”

“I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word faggot,” said the professional provocateur. Her defenders on the right have argued, absurdly, that this was not a calculated slime ball thrown at Edwards but a brave stand against “political correctness.” Hey, if you can believe the war in Iraq was a reasonable response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you can swallow anything.

One might be tempted to write this stuff off as the ravings of an attention addict with a morality deficit disorder if she hadn’t delivered them to an approving audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a central event in the Republican calendar, immediately after presidential candidate Mitt Romney addressed the group. Last year, at the same event, Coulter dismissed Iranian Muslims as “rag heads” but was invited back, which can only be read as an endorsement of her consistently vicious rhetoric.

This year, Vice President Dick Cheney addressed the conference as “this gathering of so many friends from across America.” Presumably his “friends” are giving his pregnant, lesbian, Republican daughter a pass on her sexual orientation and might, at last, be moved to stand against blatant homophobic bleating from the likes of Coulter.

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