CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA — John Edwards moves his gaze smoothly from person to person, around the audience of 200-plus at Cedar Rapids' Legion Arts gallery, first laying out proposals on jobs, then healthcare, then education.
There are the nurses in purple T-shirts, the pharmacist who asks about drug imports from Canada, the divorced dad who pleads for fathers' rights. A fluffy striped cat wanders among the chairs. A little boy squirms in his seat; the candidate, who has little ones of his own, flashes a fatherly smile.
As Mr. Edwards speaks, some in the audience begin to nod, slowly but perceptibly, like the jurors he used to woo in his days as a trial lawyer. They're with him, and they're with the case he's making - that he shares their values, not those of the president, who "goes down to his ranch in Texas and walks around in his big belt buckle," says the first-term US senator from North Carolina, his voice dripping with disdain.
In his 20 years as a practicing attorney, Edwards won his share of high-profile personal-injury cases - babies injured at birth, a girl severely injured by a swimming pool drain, a teenager who committed suicide right after release from a psychiatric hospital. Some judgments topped $20 million. Closing arguments by Johnny Edwards (his given name) have become legend; other lawyers would come to court just to watch.
For John Edwards the presidential candidate, the jury is still out. He can draw a crowd in Iowa, and sits atop polls in South Carolina, home of the first Southern primary (Feb. 3), but he has yet to break out of the pack of nine Democrats seeking their party's nomination.
Winning the hearts of Iowans, hosts of the first presidential nominating contest (Jan. 19), seems a task made to order for a politician who knows how to work a crowd. First, there's the look: Edwards doesn't dress like a rich senator. On a recent swing through Iowa, his uniform was khaki pants, a blue button-down shirt, sleeves rolled up, no tie, no jacket, no Rolex. Then there are the hands; Unlike Al Gore, he knows what to do with them, almost shaping his arguments in the air. Whether in a union hall or a living room, he projects relaxed confidence.
Over and over, Iowans who see him up close say, "He's one of us, but with a Southern accent." Indeed, in his speeches, Edwards emphasizes his small-town "son of a mill worker" roots and glosses over his years as a trial lawyer, his wealth, and his five years in the Senate. Interviews with Iowans at Edwards events revealed that about two-thirds didn't know that he was a trial lawyer or that he is wealthy.
The senator's stump-speech spin on his life story is surely a calculation. But, he says, if there's anything he learned from his courtroom years that applies to politics, it's that you can't fool people.
"You're living in never-never land if you think you can," says Edwards in an interview in his van at the end of a long day of campaigning. "When you're speaking to voters ... the single most important thing that you have is your credibility. They listen to both the substance of what you're saying and the way you say it, to determine whether they think you're being straight with them. I think it's like a threshold test: If you don't meet that test, nothing else matters. And I think the same thing's true in courtrooms."
Edwards isn't shy about answering a question with "I don't know." And sometimes, he says, you have to tell jurors - and voters - things they don't want to hear. But he's learned that "you better be the first one to tell 'em, because otherwise they'll think you're hiding it from 'em."
As it happens, there isn't much in his Iowa speeches that the locals argue with - including his protectionist stance on jobs (standard North Carolina fare, but at odds with many Democrats nationally), support of agricultural subsidies, and concerns about civil liberties. "The Washington people," he tells voters, had cautioned him on raising that last point. But two years into the war on terror, this exhortation - "We cannot let people like John Ashcroft take away our rights, our freedom, our liberty, our privacy" - is his biggest applause line.
In many ways, John Edwards's 50 years of life have seemed charmed. Blessed with a Pepsodent smile and the drive to succeed, he has the kind of up-by-the-bootstraps life story that the likes of George W. Bush and Howard Dean can't match.
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.
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.
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.
Back at the Legion Arts gallery in Cedar Rapids, after the senator's speech, Edwards poses for a photo with a supporter in front of a painting of Mount Rushmore. Edwards is feeling good. He's already had his daily four-to-five-mile run - "It keeps me sane" - and he's ready to barrel off to Tipton, Iowa, population 3,000, to meet with Democratic activists at the home of a retired insurance man. He dispenses a few hugs and is on his way.
... How America has changed since 9/11:
Immediately after Sept. 11, there was a tremendous amount of fear and worry about our safety. That's perfectly understandable. People are still worried about that, but I don't think the intensity is as high as it was. I think people have begun to be more concerned about ... the relationship between security and their freedoms and their privacy.
... The post-9/11 president's role:
The president has always been responsible first and foremost for making sure the American people are safe. [Post-9/11], it's a different kind of threat ... but that's always been the [president's] most important responsibility.
... How his background compares with President Bush's defense experience:
I believe that because of my life experience, and the ... very tough battles I have been through, that I have the personal characteristics to lead in this environment, which means being honest, having integrity, having strength of conviction. I have what we need in a human being. Secondly, I've been on the intelligence committee several years now, helped investigate Sept. 11.... I've met with leaders of that part of the world - Turkey, the Middle East, Europe - and been to Africa, all of which has allowed me to have a very clear view ... of what America's role in the world is and what needs to be done to keep this country safe.
Born: Johnny Reid Edwards, June 10, 1953.
Parents: Wallace Edwards, textile-mill employee; Bobbie Edwards, ran antiques store, delivered mail.
Family: Wife, Elizabeth. Four children (one deceased) - Cate, 21; Emma Claire, 5; John "Jack" Atticus, 3. Edwards wears his late son Wade's Outward Bound pin on his lapel.
Education: B.S. in textile technology, N.C. State University, 1974; J.D., UNC at Chapel Hill, 1977. Military service: None.
Favorite book: I.F. Stone's "The Trial of Socrates."
Favorite movie: "The Shawshank Redemption."
Early works: Vowed to "help protect innocent people from blind justice the best I can" in essay, "Why I Want to Be a Lawyer," written at age 11.
Physical feats: Played high school football and college intramural volleyball; has completed 5 marathons; climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with Wade.
High school car: Red Plymouth Duster.
Net worth: Between $12 and $60 million; 19th-richest member of Congress.
• Vice president of sophomore class in high school.
• 1 of 3 Democrats representing President Clinton in his Senate impeachment trial.
• Helped craft the Patients' Bill of Rights.
• On the Judiciary, Select Intelligence, and Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Senate committees.
• Bills himself as the champion of "regular people."
• $3 billion "College for Everyone" plan - free year of college for anyone working 10 hours a week - paid for by ending Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and by trimming the federal workforce.
• Would revamp healthcare costs and guarantee coverage for all Americans under age 21.
• Supported resolution to remove Saddam Hussein, but pushed for early sharing of postwar authority with the UN. Voted against Bush's request for $87 billion to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Opposed Attorney General John Ashcroft's confirmation. Voted for the USA Patriot Act, sweeping antiterror legislation post-9/11.
• Opposes privatization of Social Security.
• Supports abortion rights.
• Criticizes the Bush administration's "obsession" with tax cuts, but supports permanent cuts for middle-income families.
Source: Compiled from wire services, MSNBC, Roll Call, and Hotline