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John Edwards's quest to sway a bigger jury

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It may have been the death of his oldest child in 1996 - son Wade, then 16, who was killed when his Jeep flipped over - that catalyzed Edwards's leap from a lucrative law practice into politics, but the senator won't discuss it. Some observers applaud Edwards for not exploiting tragedy. Others suggest public discussion might add more texture to his life story.

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But even if the darkest moment of his own life is off the table, he seems to have infinite patience for other people's stories. At every event on his three-day Iowa tour, at least one person poured out a tale of woe - the young divorced man who rarely sees his 2-year-old daughter; the older woman who, along with her husband, spends $15,000 a year on prescription drugs; the guy with the dire medical condition whose union pension isn't being funded. With each, Edwards listened with the patience of a social worker, even amid murmurs of "ask your question!" from the audience. Without fail, a campaign aide took down names and numbers.

So in the end, with all his advantages, why hasn't Edwards done better? For one thing, he's a senator, with no executive experience; America hasn't sent a sitting senator to the White House in 43 years. To many voters, senator equals insider, even if you've been in Washington just five years.

And Edwards hasn't exactly been a backbencher. During the Clinton impeachment trial, his skill as a trial lawyer was pressed into service. In 2000, the Gore campaign put him on its short list for running mate (after a thorough vetting of his life and law practice came through clean).

Still, Edwards suggests he hasn't lost his touch as an outsider, championing "little guy" causes in the Senate like patients' rights and prescription-drug costs.

"Really, what [voters] want is for you to see things through their eyes and understand what their problems are," Edwards explains, nursing one of his ubiquitous Diet Cokes. "They know about the influence of big lobbyists in Washington, and it really bothers them."

If Edwards fails in his White House bid, he will get more experience as an outsider. Last month, he announced he would not seek reelection to the Senate, allowing him to focus on his presidential run.

Funds, prospects, personal wealth

Edwards For President began with big promise: He was the No. 1 fundraiser of the first quarter ($7.4 million). He attracted top staff and words of praise from Senate colleagues like Teddy Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona.

He remains the No. 3 fundraiser of the Democratic presidential candidates, but he is burning off funds faster than they're coming in. Some aides have moved on to other campaigns. Even after extensive on-the-ground campaigning and TV ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, he's mired in the middle of the pack in both states. Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg suggests the problem may boil down to Edwards's youthful appearance on television.

The bright spot of his campaign is his birthplace, South Carolina, where polls have him on top.

And Hollywood, fertile fundraising ground for Democrats, remains interested. Quietly observing from the sidelines at several recent Iowa events was Skip Paul, a Hollywood executive and Edwards donor. "I'm just seeing how he's doing," Mr. Paul said. Actor Ashton Kutcher is cohosting a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser for Edwards on Oct. 29.

Some Democrats say Edwards might be the classic undervalued candidate - the one who's overshadowed first by an ex-governor and then by a retired general, but ultimately gets a second look from voters.

From within Edwards' own campaign, there is muttering that he comes across as "too nice." But surely, given the senator's own analysis of how to win over jurors and voters, a sudden surge of Dean-like "anger" wouldn't fool anyone.

If there is any note of disgust in his stump speech, it is in his references to the wealthy - "the multimillionaire investor sitting by a swimming pool getting a statement each month" - and the tax breaks they've won under Bush.

Edwards, in the interview, makes no apologies about his own wealth. "I think it's a wonderful thing when people work hard and do well in this country; I myself have." But, he continues, "I don't think that's the measure of what you've done. The measure of what you've done with your life is what you've been able to accomplish, particularly on behalf of others."

After the death of their son, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, a bankruptcy lawyer, also showed a renewed commitment to children. They had two more of their own - Emma Claire, now 5, and Jack, who is 3. (Older daughter Cate is a student at Princeton.) And they created a memorial to their late son, an after-school program in Raleigh called the Wade Edwards Learning Lab.

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