Edwards: A Sleeper Candidate?

John Edwards was already on to the next thing. March 3, 2004, was a tough day for the rookie presidential candidate. He'd gone into the Super Tuesday primaries just a day earlier with momentum left over from a surprise second-place finish in Iowa and a victory in South Carolina, and hoped to win at least a few of the 10 states up for grabs that day. Instead, he'd failed to dominate any of them, not even Georgia. He was finished. He wasn't going to be president.

At least not yet. After withdrawing from the race, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, chatted informally with staffers and campaign reporters at a farewell dinner at Sullivan's Steakhouse in Raleigh, N.C. The two were exhausted but relaxed, no longer feeling they had to watch their every word. Everyone was wondering if he would run again. Edwards, perhaps not wanting to appear impolitic, didn't touch the subject. But Elizabeth was in a more expansive mood, and spoke for her husband. At the hotel two nights before, they had stayed in room 2008. Surely, she said, that wasn't a coincidence. Standing beside her, Edwards unleashed his Tom Cruise smile, his deep-blue eyes twinkling.

Those who know Edwards never doubted he would be back this year, campaigning even harder than he did the last time. A relentless trial lawyer who got rich by outworking and outpreparing the competition, he spent the last three years applying those skills to plot his comeback. He was convinced that a retooled version of the rich-versus-poor "two Americas" theme he adopted in 2004 would find an even larger audience now.

Things haven't worked out quite the way he planned. He'd envisioned the campaign coming down to a two-person race between him and Hillary Clinton—a match-up he thought he could win by exploiting her divisiveness and high negatives. Barack Obama spoiled that by rivaling Edwards in charisma and optimism, siphoning away money and attention. And early missteps—the $400 haircut, the 25,000-square-foot mansion, the job at a hedge fund—raised questions about his authenticity and fed an impression among some voters that his common-man populism was more conceit than conviction. Now, with the Iowa caucuses just a few weeks away, he finds himself trying to talk his way up from third place.

At times, irritation shows through his usually sunny exterior. A powerful, engaging speaker before large crowds, he can become prickly and defensive in private when the conversation strays from his campaign themes. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Edwards spoke with emotion about Elizabeth's ongoing battle with cancer (since recurring in March, her condition has stabilized) and about his father, who struggled to get ahead, "working really hard and not being able to get to the place that he deserved." Yet asked what lessons he had learned as a candidate in 2004 and what he is doing differently this time, Edwards turned cold. "I'm not in the business of going back and analyzing the '04 campaign," he said, "so I just don't."

On the stump, Edwards campaigns with the urgency of a man who is running out of time. He might be. A third-place showing in Iowa would likely spell the end of his campaign, and his presidential ambitions, for good. Yet Edwards believes he can still come from behind for an upset win. Political reporters may like the story line (and simplicity) of depicting Iowa as a Clinton-Obama smackdown, but Edwards's strategists say that the media and pollsters are overlooking a more important, if less glamorous, story.

For months, Edwards has been rounding up support in the state's rural precincts where the front runners have paid less attention. While Obama and Clinton have drawn crowds in the thousands in places like Des Moines and Ames, Edwards has been winning over people in tiny towns like Sac City (population: 2,189). Even if he loses to Obama and Clinton in the state's bigger cities, he hopes he can still win by wrapping up smaller, far-flung precincts that other candidates have ignored. "The bulk of our support is in small and medium counties," says Jennifer O'Malley, Edwards's Iowa state director. O'Malley says Edwards has visited all 99 counties in the state; the campaign has so far trained captains covering 90 percent of all 1,781 precincts. Rural voters are sometimes reluctant to caucus, so the campaign has been enlisting respected community leaders to encourage first-timers to get past their apathy or fear.

This could be wishful thinking from an ailing campaign. But it's worth keeping in mind just how wrong the media echo chamber can be when it comes to predicting winners and losers. At about this time four years ago, Vermont Gov. Howard Dean was the press-anointed darling who could seemingly do no wrong in Iowa. Dour John Kerry was scorned by reporters as the should-have-been who had blown it and couldn't possibly win. But on caucus night, Kerry wound up the victor—and Dean wound up screaming. Reporters were left to wonder what they had missed. One story the talking heads may be missing this time: just how badly John Edwards hates to lose.

The desire to get ahead—to win—is no small thing for Edwards. He was raised in the depressed town of Robbins, N.C., where his father, Wallace, worked in a now long-gone textile mill. It's a biographical detail the candidate mentions so often in speeches and campaign ads that it can sometimes border on self-parody. Yet his father's story is what Edwards's campaign, and political career, is all about. His dad worked his way up in the mill and was promoted to supervisor. But without a college degree, there was only so far he could rise. "He heard his mother and I talk about it at the dinner table, so he knew what I was faced with," his father tells NEWSWEEK. Money was scarce. Wallace was determined that John and his younger brother and sister, Wesley Blake and Kathy, would attend college. He set an example of self-improvement. He took classes offered by the mill, and tuned in to the education channel on TV early each morning when the station aired lessons in statistics and probability.

Tall and good-looking—and he knew it—John Edwards was a popular student and a star football player, skinny but fast. His high-school friend John Mashburn remembers Edwards as a leader. "In a little redneck town, he was different," he says. There was still racial tension in Robbins in the early 1970s, and black students were sometimes mistreated. In protest, several of them once held a sit-in. Edwards persuaded his white friends to join in. "Johnny got a lot of the athletes, myself, our girlfriends … he was instrumental in encouraging us," Mashburn says. John Frye, another high-school friend, says it was a gutsy thing to do. He "stuck his neck out," Frye recalls. "There was a price to pay in how some folks treated him after that. We had people who didn't embrace desegregation even though it had been a bridge crossed years earlier."

Edwards's father was a lifelong Clemson football fan, and often took John to games. When he graduated from high school, John enrolled at Clemson, in hopes of winning a football scholarship. "I don't think it was his original idea," his mother, Bobbie, says. "I think it was just to please his dad."

Clemson wasn't at all how he imagined it would be. Though just nine miles from where he was born, the relatively privileged campus was a world away. To save money, he lived with his grandmother in her small house not far from school. He was no longer a star on the playing field. The other athletes were bigger, heavier and stronger. Edwards made the team as a lowly walk-on, hoping to prove himself and earn the scholarship. It was a low point in his life. He didn't get to play, and during practice, Edwards and the other bench warmers were used as tackling dummies by the first-string players. Every day, he'd limp off the scrimmage field. Friends recall Edwards's saying he was "getting beat to death." In the team photo taken at the beginning of the year, Edwards sports a huge grin. But as the months passed, he became quiet and withdrawn.

He couldn't afford to stay at Clemson without a scholarship; after a few months, it became clear he wasn't going to get it. He certainly didn't make an impression on his coaches: none of the four NEWSWEEK contacted remembered he had been on the team. After his first semester, he decided to leave Clemson and enroll at North Carolina State. For the first time in his life, his best wasn't good enough. "I wasn't used to failure," he wrote in his book, "Four Trials," "and I was miserable that I had failed my dad." But Edwards must have also realized that if he kept wasting his time and talents where they weren't wanted, he'd never fulfill his father's desire for him to get ahead.

At NC State, Edwards was himself again. He still couldn't afford the tuition, so he worked nights at UPS for about $8 an hour unloading boxes from 18-wheelers. He was broke but happy, and didn't outwardly envy his better-off friends. "He wasn't the type that would say, 'Man, I came from a poor background'," says his old dorm suitemate John Huffman. "He knew what he had to do and what his situation was, and that was it." Edwards's friends teased him about his long, blond-streaked hair and surfer looks. He would "kind of fluff his hair up," Huffman says. "We'd cut up with him about being a pretty boy." Huffman says Edwards "came across as rather cocky at times. I would even throw in 'arrogant,' but always in good fun."

Edwards was also a driven student who was obsessed with making top grades. He resolved to keep college costs down by taking summer school and graduating in three years. Everyone knew what Edwards had in mind for his future: he was going to law school. He was accepted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In class, he fell for Elizabeth Anania, a smart, outspoken student four years his senior. "She was just a ball of fire in the classroom," recalls Patrick Oglesby, who was editor of the law review. Elizabeth was known as a fierce classroom debater. "If she's right, she's not going to back down," says Oglesby. If Edwards was smitten with her, Elizabeth might not have been quite as impressed with him, at least at first. She got better grades and made law review, while he didn't. It was "a blow to him," she tells NEWSWEEK. "He had some uncertainty about whether he could match up." But, she says, by the time they graduated, he ranked higher in the class.

Edwards has said that, even as a kid, he dreamed of being a lawyer. He watched every episode of "Perry Mason" and "The Fugitive." When he was 11, he penned an essay titled "Why I Want to Be a Lawyer," in which he wrote, "I would like to protect innocent people." Edwards tells crowds he got into the law for just that reason: to help the little guy against moneyed interests. But friends at NC State remember it differently. He talked about being an "attorney representing businesses," says Bill Garner, a boyhood friend and college roommate. "He wasn't focused at that point … on the liability side. He was more focused on being a corporate attorney." Edwards says he did, in fact, stumble into those kinds of cases. "It was really more of a happenstance than anything else," he says. He went to work for a firm "looking to start a civil trial practice … I happened to get a case or two, really through luck, worked very hard on them, was successful, and it sort of snowballed."

It didn't take long for Edwards to earn a reputation as a fearsome courtroom operator. He favored heartbreaking cases in which clients had been injured by unsympathetic corporations—cases that had the potential for enormous payouts. In one case, his client was a 5-year-old girl who had been disemboweled by a faulty swimming-pool drain. The jury awarded her $25 million. He was renowned for his tireless preparation. He worked back-to-back all-nighters, reviewing every document and page of testimony himself. "It's very difficult to keep up with him," says a former associate, Andy Penry. "He doesn't eat or sleep … You cannot outwork him." In marathon prep sessions, Edwards would plot out the trial in advance, anticipating witnesses and questions, spotting holes in his case and his opponent's. Penry says that when Edwards would hit a sticking point, "he would call in his secret weapon: Elizabeth."

He was also a natural courtroom showman, calm and confident with an instinct for connecting with juries. Edwards didn't try to dazzle jurors; he wanted to win their trust. He was always smiling, pleasant and calm, even when cross-examining reluctant witnesses. "He ingratiated himself with jurors to an extent greater than I have seen in any other lawyer," says Dewey Wells, a former defense attorney who faced Edwards at trial.

The work paid off. In 1990, at 37, Edwards was admitted to the Inner Circle of Advocates, a club of lawyers who had tried at least 50 personal-injury cases and won at least one million-dollar verdict. Three years later, he opened his own firm with old friend David Kirby. Edwards specialized in suing doctors on behalf of babies born with cerebral palsy. In all, as a lawyer, he won more than $150 million in jury awards and settlements.

By 1996, Edwards had made it big. He had a lucrative career, a loving wife and two kids, 14-year-old Cate and 16-year-old Wade. But in April of that year, Wade died when a windstorm overturned his Jeep on the highway. The family was devastated. Edwards stopped practicing law for six months.

At the time of Wade's death, Edwards had already begun thinking about quitting law for a career in politics. It was something he'd talked about with his son many times. Wade would joke with him, asking him when he was going to run. A few months before his death, Wade had entered an essay on voting in a Voice of America contest. He won; Bill and Hillary Clinton shook his hand at the White House. In an interview with the Raleigh News & Observer, Kirby recalled a conversation the day he went to the hospital with Edwards to identify Wade's body: "He turned to me—he was totally in shock—and said, 'I just can't let his death go without some good coming out of it. I couldn't take it otherwise'."

In 1998, Edwards ran for Senate. He believes "he's got an obligation bigger than himself," says Elizabeth, "to do work that Wade would be proud of." Edwards was an unknown outside legal circles, but threw himself into the campaign with his usual intensity. Penry, his former law colleague, says Edwards would "be at his desk making phone calls" to potential supporters "15 hours a day." It didn't hurt that Edwards—who now has an estimated net worth of $30 million—put $6 million into his own coffers. His first campaign touched on many of the common-man themes he uses today. He was going to be the voice of the little guy in Washington, D.C. Edwards dispatched his Democratic rival, and then defeated the incumbent, GOP Sen. Lauch Faircloth, painting him as an ineffective voice for the people.

Junior senators are usually seen more than they are heard, but Democratic elders had plans for the telegenic lawyer. He scored a prized seat on the Judiciary Committee, where he used his courtroom skills to grill White House appointees before C-Span cameras. In North Carolina, though, some people began grumbling that the freshman senator was more interested in his newfound celebrity in Washington than he was in working for the people back home. Political pros speculated that he was already getting ready to run for president.

They were right. Ed Turlington, an old Edwards law colleague who had worked on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign, says he had a serious discussion with Edwards about a possible presidential run in fall 2001—just three years after Edwards had won his very first election to anything. (Al Gore had briefly considered him for veep in 2000.) Edwards started showing up in Iowa and New Hampshire, and once again began dialing for dollars. Turlington would go on to chair his 2004 campaign.

Edwards positioned himself as a cheerful optimist who refused to join in the nasty tit-for-tat between the front runners, Dean and Dick Gephardt. "If you're looking for the candidate who will do the best job of attacking the other Democrats, I'm not your guy," he said. Iowa voters wound up punishing Dean and Gephardt. Kerry and Edwards took the No. 1 and 2 spots.

It was an impressive showing, but Edwards couldn't hold on past Super Tuesday. After dropping out, he immediately got to work persuading Kerry's campaign to pick him for vice president. The Kerry-Edwards union was uneasy from the start. There were little things: Edwards wanted to lead audiences in his "Hope is on the way!" cheer. Kerry thought "Help is on the way" sounded more dignified. Neither man would budge, and they wound up using two different slogans. There were also larger differences. When Kerry came under the Swift Boat attacks over his war record, Edwards urged him to fight back early. Kerry believed it was beneath him to dignify his attackers with a response.

Yet Edwards himself delivered a lackluster performance in his big campaign moment: his debate against Vice President Dick Cheney. Cheney came looking for a fight; Edwards remained deferential to the veep and missed obvious opportunities to strike back. Edwards, the master courtroom performer, came off as unprepared. At the time, some in the Kerry camp groused that Edwards was already thinking about 2008 and didn't want to damage his sunny reputation. But Edwards insists he dedicated himself to the Kerry cause. "I believed in him," he tells NEWSWEEK. "And I advocated for him with everything I had."

The day after the election was lost, Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer. While she underwent chemotherapy, the couple spent hours talking about his next move. The treatment was successful, and she went into remission. She says she wanted him to run again.

Edwards, who had retired from the Senate to run for president and didn't have (or need) a full-time job, geared up for a second run at the White House. He started a poverty center and immersed himself in policy to combat criticism from the last election that he was a lightweight on the issues. He also made some questionable choices for a champion of the underprivileged. He built a 25,000-square-foot house, the most expensive in North Carolina's affluent Orange County. He got caught paying a ridiculous sum for a haircut. More seriously, he took a part-time, $500,000 consulting job with Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund of the type that has become a symbol of Wall Street excess. Edwards invested nearly $16 million of his own money in the fund. This summer, it was revealed that Fortress invested in two major subprime lenders that had sought to foreclose on victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana—an unflattering detail for a candidate who launched his campaign with a speech in the Lower Ninth Ward. Edwards, who had resigned from the fund in December 2006, before he formally announced his candidacy, said he didn't know of the firm's involvement in the subprime lending industry and had requested that his personal funds be invested elsewhere. He pledged a donation to help those in Louisiana who had lost homes.

His campaign was almost halted before it began. In March, Elizabeth announced that her cancer had spread. She says she and John agreed that it was important he keep running. She is now back on the campaign trail several days a week.

Last month Edwards seemed to have a moment of doubt about his trademark good cheer and humor on the campaign trail. Seemingly out of nowhere, he began harshly attacking Hillary Clinton as a tool of lobbyists. It was a risky move in friendly Iowa, where going negative can backfire. To make sure he didn't go too far, his campaign gauged the reaction by quietly poll-testing his attacks with voters, says an Edwards campaign aide who didn't want to be named talking about internal tactics. (Edwards himself brushes off a question about whether he tested his tone with voters. "I don't want to talk about what other people do on my behalf," he tells NEWSWEEK. "My best feedback is what I feel in these events, what I hear and see in these events, which are real.")

Then, just as suddenly, he went back to being the happy optimist and has purged all references to Clinton. Instead, he's launched a new "America Rising" slogan that hits on his theme of protecting the middle class from corporate greed. He calls his vote for the Iraq War a mistake, says he will protect American jobs from going overseas and says free-trade agreements like NAFTA have hurt more than helped. "We want this war ended," he says. "We want universal health care. We want to get off our addiction to carbon-based fuel …" As he ticks off his list of issues, his grin stays firmly in place. Edwards says he made a foray into negative territory because "I thought it was important for people to understand the differences" between him and Clinton. Now, he says, that time has passed and he wants people to hear why he wants to be president.

There aren't many days remaining to do that. If the nomination passes him by again, it's doubtful he'd mount another run for the White House. There are plenty of second chances in American political life, but thirds are harder to come by. Then again, there is always the chance that when John and Elizabeth Edwards check into a hotel on the night of Jan. 3, they'll rest their heads behind door number 2012.

With Holly Bailey, Jonathan Alter, Eleanor Clift and Jessica Ramirez