‘I’m Going to Speak the Truth’

This is it. John Edwards, who has all but lived in Iowa since 2004, is now in his final push in the Hawkeye State. Last week, aboard his campaign bus on a trip from Grinnell to Des Moines, Edwards talked to NEWSWEEK's Arian Campo-Flores about honing his message to voters. Excerpts:

Campo-Flores: You've been here campaigning, on and off, for four years. But polls show you still in third. What are you going to do?
My responsibility is to close this campaign in Iowa with a very specific set of ideas about how we give all Americans the chances I've had … It's what I've been able to do, and we can do it again … both the specific policy ideas and also the heartfelt passion behind it, which is real, and they need to see it.

When you were a trial lawyer, you tested your arguments before mock juries. You've been testing your messages now as a campaigner—
—but there is no "mock" now. This is for real. Every time I speak, I'm speaking to people who actually go to caucuses.

But you have been focus-grouping your message?
I don't want to talk about what other people do on my behalf. My best feedback is what I feel in these events, what I hear and see in these events, which are real. People who are choosing—not just people who support me, but people who are choosing—I think they see a strength and a passion that is driven by my own life experience, and that's what they respond to.

There's been some tinkering, though, with the message, how you convey the message.
You mean more positive.

It's my responsibility to give them the specific reasons why I should be president, both from my own life experience and what drives me to what it is I want to do for the country and the world.

Were you getting any negative feedback on the period when you were more combative with Hillary Clinton?
Not really, no. I thought it was important for people to understand the differences, the substantive policy differences between us, and now I think we're at the stage where it's time to focus on why I want to be president.

What do you think went wrong during the 2004 general-election campaign? What were the lessons you drew from that?
Well, I'm not in the business of going back and analyzing the '04 campaign, so I just don't. I can tell you what I believe about America today. I think that what the country is looking for in a president is somebody who has clear, very specific ideas and bold ideas about what needs to be done. I think that's what America needs. It's what I believe, and I think they're looking for somebody to be straight with them about the challenges they face, and very direct.

Given what you just said, did you feel you couldn't be as direct as you wanted to be in '04?
I'll stand by what I said. What I did in 2004 is do everything I could, in the general election, which is what you asked me, to get John Kerry elected. And I believed in him. I believed in him as a candidate and I advocated for him with everything I had. But I'm running for president now.

The aftermath of the 2004 election was a very difficult one for you. You had the defeat, and immediately after, you learned about Elizabeth's cancer.
Well, first of all, it was a time during which Elizabeth and I were spending an awful lot of time together, because she was going through her cancer treatment and I was with her. There were long periods of me sitting in the hospital room with her when she was getting her chemotherapy. They give sedatives when they give chemotherapy, so sometimes she would doze off, so I was just sitting with her alone, and I was very focused on trying to get her well. We had been through, in 1996, the death of my son, and so we'd been through very difficult times together before, and we knew how to help each other and prop each other up during difficult times. That's what was happening in that period of time. And [we were] also deciding what kind of causes we cared most about. Elizabeth and I decided together to start the poverty center at the University of North Carolina.

How was it that you settled on this work? And what's the connection to what you were going through at the time?
I wanted to serve and do some good. Before I ever got involved in politics, I had been involved with a faith-based group called Urban Ministries, in Raleigh, that took care of the poorest of the poor. That work was important to me, and the deeper I got into the work on poverty, the more important it became to me.

After the 2004 loss, was there ever a doubt in your mind that you would run again?
Oh, yeah. I had not decided to run again. I was trying to decide during that period of time after '04, "Where is the best place for me to serve? Where can I do the most good?" because I had made the decision, Elizabeth and I made [it] together, that we were going to spend the rest of our lives serving, and the question was what was the best way to do it … I'd been through a national campaign, a national spotlight, and there's a seasoning and a toughness that comes from doing that. And Elizabeth's health, the two of us went through that, our family went through that together. And I think my feeling is that I'm going to tell people, "I'm going to speak the truth, whatever the consequences are."