In public appearances, he is smoothly upbeat, usually, proclaiming America's need to be "lifted up" by a leader who can bring people together. It is a message of hope tinged with anger at the widening gap in America between the haves and have-nots, punctuated by his own up-by-the-bootstraps biography.
For now, that pitch has served John Edwards well, and earned the North Carolina senator close scrutiny by New Hampshire Democrats after his surging second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. But campaign analysts warn that Senator Edwards has to be careful not to oversell his new image as Mr. Positive. Campaigns are by definition a lively public dialogue of point and counterpoint, and the higher a candidate rises in the polls, the more he will be challenged - and forced to fight back.
"People are misreading this Edwards phenomenon," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Point No. 1: While Edwards did not attack in advertising and speeches, he did attack in debates - coming back hard at Howard Dean over his Confederate flag comment and at Dick Gephardt over charges on the trade issue.
Point No. 2: Edwards has been able to lie back and avoid attacking the front- runners, because others were doing the dirty work for him. Some analysts say that Governor Dean and Representative Gephardt seriously damaged their candidacies in Iowa by going so hard after each other, allowing John Kerry and Edwards to overtake them.
As a highly successful trial lawyer before his election to the US Senate five years ago, Edwards is a shrewd tactician. For him, sunny optimism will never be mistaken for empty-headedness. But, analysts say, he also needs to understand that for his candidacy to keep thriving, he's going to have to be negative at times about his opponents without appearing overly so. Attacks over policy positions and voting records are fair game - and in fact, voters rely on that information. Personal attacks, or anything seen as unfair, such as the ad that ran briefly last month linking Dean and Osama bin Laden, are out of bounds.
"What Edwards has picked up on is the deep sense of retreat among Americans from politics and public life," says Richard Harwood, who runs an institute on civic life. "He's got a dilemma on his hands, if he wants to be true to his word. Playing with hope is like playing with fire. If you do not fulfill your promise, you will further deepen people's sense of cynicism."
Generally, negative messages get greater play in the media than positive ones, and that may explain why it took Edwards longer to start attracting attention.
"It is the negativity bias," says Spencer Tinkham, professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Georgia. "Negative information inherently has a greater impact; it is remembered longer. Positive messages take a lot of repetition and multiple exposures to sink in."
In New Hampshire, where the candidates are in full sprint to next Tuesday's Democratic primary, voters expect a level of combativeness in the campaign.
"To an extent, we still have that Yankee mentality of being independent and being feisty," says Katherine Mitchell of Hopkinton, N.H., attending a Kerry event in Concord, N.H. "Nobody wants a lot of mudslinging, but it's important to clarify distinctions between candidates."
Anne Emerson from Canterbury, N.H., says she's one who "likes them nice all the time, but in New Hampshire, we do enjoy all kinds." At McGarvey's pub, owner John O'Keefe has watched hundreds of candidacies live and die in New Hampshire since he moved here from Massachusetts 35 years ago. "It's part of politics, being negative," he says. When asked whether Edwards can afford to keep the same tone in New Hampshire, he looked back to Edmund Muskie's presidential campaign of 1972: "Muskie tried to be Mr. Nice Guy and got destroyed here."
In Greenville, S.C., where Edwards campaigned Wednesday morning, looking ahead to the state's Feb. 3 primary, the native son got a warm welcome home. To be sure, many here saw his performance in Iowa as proof that, with his energy and demeanor, is electable. "He looks like a president," said Patrick Mungrum, an undecided trial lawyer attending Edwards's event at a street bistro. But others said that Edwards is touching a deeper nerve in America's body politic. As he told some 200 fans, "If you want someone's who's going to snipe, I'm not your guy."
Joe Adams and Jessica Friedman, a father-daughter team of attorneys who drove down from Asheville, N.C., as part of a 'North Carolina Mountain Democrats' contingent, said Edwards's optimistic message doesn't play as well on TV as in person. But in small groups and one-on-one, Mr. Adams says Edwards is "unbeatable."
Part of it is a genuine belief that "America can do better." But his personal story - a millworker's son who clawed his way through public schools and worked through college unpacking trucks - epitomizes a political idealism that harks back to FDR and John F. Kennedy. "He really believes in his message of hope and optimism," says Adams.
At least in part, Iowans seemed to react against the political game of parry and attack that defined the Dean and Gephardt campaigns. Pundits admitted they failed to track an undercurrent of support for Kerry's and Edwards's more populist and optimist messages.
For his part, Edwards vowed to "cut lobbyists off at the knees" and he riffed on a description of "two Americas:" two school systems, two tax systems, two classes. He also said the South has a "huge responsibility" to address racial inequalities. "Cynics didn't build this country," he said to huge applause. "Optimists built this country.... I believe in the politics of hope, the politics of what's possible."
His biggest challenge will be to collar conservative voters in the South who support George Bush. But many here see him as a centrist, even a conservative. Mike Evatt of Seneca, S.C., pointed out that "He believes in equality for everyone, but he's also against same-sex marriage" - a view that many in the South could support.
Tom Slaton, a 20-year Army veteran whose son just returned from eight months in Iraq, says he's never seen Edwards attack his opponents unfairly, saving his most biting criticism for Mr. Bush. "Why smear people?" says Mr. Slaton. "Eventually, they'll smear themselves."
Edwards's optimistic message is resonating with voters because of a disconnect many feel with Washington, said one Edwards supporter from Greenville. "It's like 10 percent of the people control Washington and the other 90 percent of us sit at home with no power to change it."
Edwards's personal story of going from a poor upbringing to a multimillion-dollar class-action attorney also resonated. "That's what the people of America are hoping, that they can do what John Edwards has done," said Adams.
• Contributing to this report were Patrik Jonsson in Greenville, S.C., Noel C. Paul in Concord, N.H., and Sara B. Miller in Boston.