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Democrats getting too personal?

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LOS ANGELES — John Edwards, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, cannot pass a crowd these days without talking about his father the millworker or growing up in rural North Carolina. For Dick Gephardt, the campaign stories are about his father the milk truck driver and his son's successful battle with prostate cancer.

But spend a day with Howard Dean and it is almost as if his life began the day he stepped behind the governor's desk in Vermont 12 years ago. And Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman is far more animated talking about the intricacies of trade policy than in sharing stories about growing up in Stamford, Conn.

A striking stylistic divide has emerged among the Democratic candidates as they struggle to determine the extent to which they can — or should — build candidacies on often intimate details of their lives in an era that celebrates the public airing of the most personal of tales.

Their responses — from the intense intimacy of Gephardt to the rigorous avoidance of personal biography that has characterized Dean's candidacy — reflect fundamentally different calculations by the candidates about what voters are looking for in this election.

But they also illustrate disagreements among the candidates over what is appropriate to talk about in the context of a political campaign and the complexity of divulging intimate details that might enhance their standing without appearing to exploit personal tragedy for political gain.

Some Democrats said that even before Bill Clinton changed the way campaigns were conducted by disclosing that his stepfather had abused his mother, the first task of any campaign was to introduce the life of a candidate to voters. From this point of view, voters assess candidates based on who they are and how they have lived before they consider their political views.

But other Democrats argue that the appetite for homey anecdotes might prove limited in an election taking place against a backdrop of threats from abroad and a weak economy at home. And some suggested that voters might be recoiling from an excess of personal information that marked Clinton's years in Washington and are looking for less-confessional candidacies, which may account for some of the early success of Dean, who campaigned here on Saturday.

"Howard's life is an open book, but frankly he thinks what people are more interested in is how he's going to improve their lives, rather than where he grew up and where he went to school," Steve McMahon, a senior adviser to Dean, said.

Robert Schmuhl, a professor of American studies at the University of Notre Dame, said the nomination contest thus far signaled that the campaign of personal disclosure has been eclipsed by hard-edged appeals based on partisanship and issues.

"There are a whole lot of people," Schmuhl said, "who came out of the Clinton imbroglio and said: 'There are certain areas where you crossed a line, and don't cross it now. And give me substance."'