I'm Real. Really.

In the fall of 2005, John Edwards sat down with a pad and pen and scrawled out three simple words: "I was wrong." It was nearly three years after he'd joined a Senate majority in voting to authorize war in Iraq. After an unsuccessful run as John Kerry's vice presidential candidate in the 2004 election, Edwards had returned home to North Carolina and watched as the war descended into chaos. Increasingly filled with regret, he concluded that the three-word confession would be the right way to start a Washington Post op-ed admitting his vote was a mistake.

But when a draft came back from his aides in Washington, Edwards's admission was gone. Determined, the senator reinserted the sentence. Again a draft came back from Washington; again the sentence had been taken out. "We went back and forth, back and forth," Edwards tells NEWSWEEK. "They didn't want me to say it. They were saying I should stress that I'd been misled." The opening sentence remained. "That was the single most important thing for me to say," Edwards recalls. "I had to show how I really feel."

The "real" John Edwards is not someone America knows well. When he first crossed the national stage, he called himself the "son of a mill worker," but he seemed more like a creature spawned in a focus group--attractive, well spoken and safe. Since then, he has weathered enormous hardship--his wife, Elizabeth, has battled breast cancer--but hardly a wrinkle has crossed his perpetually tanned face. He has spent the better part of five years in one of the most contrived careers known to man: candidate for president of the United States.

In recent weeks, however, Edwards has been trying to draw attention to his less- scripted side. First there was his "silence is betrayal" attack on his main rivals for the 2008 Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, for not speaking out against the escalation of the Iraq war. On Feb. 4, in an appearance on "Meet the Press," he broke the cardinal rule of presidential politics and admitted that his proposal for universal health care would require raising taxes. Then, last week, he refused to fire two campaign employees who'd criticized Roman Catholics and religious conservatives on their personal blogs, despite pressure from conservative leaders.

It's perhaps no accident that Genuine John Edwards has chosen this particular moment to emerge. The senator is campaigning as an alternative to Clinton, the front runner whose chief weakness with primary voters is the impression she is driven more by polling than principle. He has lost supporters, and even some staff, to Obama--a candidate who's connected with Democrats by seeming to always speak from his heart. And the success of blunt-spoken Democratic Senate candidates like Montana's Jon Tester and Virginia's Jim Webb has left Washington consultants advising their clients to act like, well, they don't listen to consultants.

Still, Edwards's new commitment to authenticity may have real roots: in 2004, the candidate learned the hard way that too much caution can be fatal. When the Kerry campaign faltered, Edwards and his wife were convinced that a broad swath of competing consultants, offering conflicting advice, were largely to blame. "Consultants can make it hard to tell the truth," Edwards says. "They want you to be so cautious it makes it hard to say anything." Aides, who didn't want to be named discussing their boss's internal thinking, say he walked away from 2004 convinced that only strong, centralized decision making works in presidential campaigns.

He was already thinking of the next election--but Edwards had a more pressing task. When Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer, Edwards became her chief caretaker, sitting beside her as she underwent debilitating treatment. (Elizabeth is now in remission.) By her bedside, he pondered his own future and contemplated Iraq. How could he go on rationalizing his vote to authorize support for the war? "I knew I couldn't keep explaining a vote ... I had serious doubts about," he says.

Aides saw a new confidence in Edwards after he publicly repudiated his war vote in November 2005. He had developed his own world view and could converse easily about foreign policy. He'd also taken on fighting poverty as his central cause. It seemed an odd choice for the old John Edwards--"electable" centrist candidates don't waste time on the poor while vying for middle-class voters. "Yeah, I heard all that," Edwards told NEWSWEEK in 2006. "It's what I want to do." (Critics claim Edwards's new 28,000-square-foot home in Orange County, N.C., shows his commitment to the poor may not be as all-consuming as he suggests.)

All his talk about the working class has helped Edwards get cozy with labor. In 2004, he peppered his speeches with sympathy for unions but largely sat out of the major jockeying for endorsements from Big Labor. Now he has led an aggressive courtship, naming union-friendly former congressman David Bonior as his campaign chairman and pitching labor leaders. Andy Stern, president of the influential Service Employees International Union (SEIU), has seemed especially drawn to Edwards's message. But associates, who would only speak about his intentions anonymously, say he is wary of alienating the Clintons. (An SEIU spokesman said the union would not make an endorsement until September at the earliest.)

Edwards has also recast himself as the Internet candidate. In 2004, his campaign largely ceded the Web money chase to Howard Dean. But Elizabeth, who was an early habitué of online communities, has long urged her husband to take more-aggressive steps on the Internet. He has wooed bloggers during private dinners and invested in a Web site that many consider to be the most sophisticated of any candidate in either party. Last week he declined calls to dismiss campaign bloggers Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, amid allegations they were antireligion. "The first response normally would have been to listen to these Beltway actors who were saying, 'Clearly, you have to fire these people'," says Jonathan Singer, a blogger for the liberal site MyDD. "He has some spine."

But to win the Democratic nomination, Edwards needs cash as much as he needs resolve. To stay in the same sentence as Clinton and Obama, Edwards must have an impressive fund-raising total at the end of the first filing period on March 31. He will spend the next two months crisscrossing the country, picking up checks. "The travel bothers me more than it used to," he admits. "Maybe it's just that I'm older." The new John Edwards is still running for president--but now admits when he feels a little pain.