WASHINGTON — Last October, at the height of baseball playoff season - and the race for the Democratic presidential nomination - John Edwards was asked which team he favored, the Yankees or the Red Sox. The first-term senator from North Carolina laughed.
"I'm not answering that one! No way!" Then, from the front seat of his van on a campaign swing through Iowa, he answered anyway: "The other night I was rooting for the Red Sox in Game 5, but I was in New Hampshire at the time and I was surrounded by Red Sox fans. But it was kinda exciting to see the Red Sox do well."
Little did he know that was the "right" answer, now that he is the running mate of the presumed Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Maybe, as an up-by-the-bootstraps former trial lawyer who was a self-described defender of the weak against large corporations, Senator Edwards has an affinity for underdogs. But he is nothing if not ambitious. And even though, all during primary season, Edwards insisted he wasn't in it to land the No. 2 spot on the ticket, that's where he is - and, he now says, "thrilled" to be there.
Edwards's unbridled ambition - marked by a presidential campaign that seemed to start almost the moment he took his Senate seat, his first foray into politics - seemed almost a hindrance to his selection by Kerry. Like George W. Bush, whose running mate, Dick Cheney, had given up his own presidential aspirations, Kerry may have preferred someone a little more seasoned, a little less in a hurry. And he may have hesitated over Edwards's charisma, an area where he clearly outshines Kerry.
But in selecting Edwards, Kerry is also showing his own self-confidence - saying, in essence, that he can hold his own against Bush on defense and national security, and didn't need the credentials of a Gen. Wesley Clark, a Sen. John McCain, or a Sen. Bob Graham to beef up his ticket. Instead, he's putting by his side someone who can aid his ticket in other ways, analysts say: a proven fundraiser, quick on his feet, and a man who knows how to sway voters as surely as he used to sway juries. Edwards also has that Southern ability to campaign anywhere in the US, which Northerners find more difficult.
Finishing his sixth year as a senator, Edwards's political record isn't long. At the very start of his term, he was pressed into service as one of President Clinton's three Senate defenders during impeachment. Edwards also managed the floor debate on the Patients' Bill of Rights, legislation that eventually bogged down, but his performance won him praise from the Republican Senator McCain, who noted the North Carolinian's ability to make the complex understandable.
"Edwards really isn't running on his Senate record, he is running on the fact that he is a fresh face with an attractive bio that is the American dream," says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "He is extremely wealthy, but he started very poor and he presents that in a compelling way. He looks good on TV, and that can't be discounted."
One highlight of the fall campaign may well be the vice-presidential debate between Edwards and Mr. Cheney. "The contrast with Cheney is extremely stark," Professor Feaver continues. "Cheney is one of the most politically experienced vice presidents ever, with an extraordinarily long record of public service across multiple crises and situations.... Edwards is probably the least politically experienced VP candidate of a major party in modern memory."
Still, Feaver predicts, Edwards is not likely to be easily vanquished by Cheney.
For weeks, polls of Democrats showed Edwards a clear favorite for the No. 2 slot, even as tea-leaf readers saw signs that Kerry might go with another of his nomination rivals, Rep. Dick Gephardt, who would have brought 26 years of political experience to the table but little pizzazz. And so, in getting their wish, rank-and-file Democrats will now have to argue against the GOP critique of Edwards that flooded e-mail in-boxes the moment Edwards's name came out - that he is a "disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal-injury trial lawyers."
Indeed, says political scientist Ross Baker of Rutgers University, "the Republicans can say with some justification that we have a vice president who is deep in experience and the Democrats have chosen a Johnny-come-lately." Clearly, he continues, "he came in seeing the Senate as a way station to the presidency. He was definitely a man in a hurry."
This "man in a hurry" persona may even spark some comparisons to former President Clinton, who, in his just-released memoirs, made clear that the premature death of his father has been a constant reminder that life could be short and there's no time to waste. For Edwards, it was the death of his son Wade in 1996 that shook his own life to the core and sent him into public service.
In his book "Four Trials," published earlier this year, Edwards for the first time goes public with his thoughts on Wade's death, and concludes his book: "I have learned two great lessons - that there will always be heartache and struggle, and that people of strong will can make a difference. One is a sad lesson; the other is inspiring. I choose to be inspired."
After Wade's death, Edwards sold his law practice and ran for the Senate. He and his wife, Elizabeth, established a foundation in Wade's name, and had two more children, Emma Claire and Jack, now ages 6 and 4. Their older daughter, Cate, recently graduated from Princeton.
People who know Edwards point to the memory of Wade as the animating force in Edwards's public life. "This is a guy who .... has been thrown some curve balls," says Steve Jarding, who ran Edwards's political action committee. Wade's death "made Edwards's family stronger, it gave him perspective. If you dwell too much on the death, you ignore the life. It gave him strong perspective in his personal life, his spiritual life: Our time here is short, let's make the most of it, let's not get bogged down in details, let's not whine about things, let's do what we can to better the lot."
• Sara B. Miller in Boston, Gail Russell Chaddock in Washington, and Patrik Jonsson in South Carolina contributed.