One Hug at a Time

It's friday night in iowa and an old politician is trying some new tricks. John Edwards is back--back, with the familiar deep drawl, dark tan and honeyed hair. Gone, though, are the old catchphrases--"two Americas" and "hope is on the way." In their place: a long meditation on America's moral obligation to confront the plight of its poor. "Thirty-seven million of our people, worried about feeding and clothing their children," he said to his audience. "Aren't we better than that?" It's not the stuff of great sound bites, but it's part of Edwards's new political plan: a presidential campaign with fighting poverty as a central plank. It's a risky strategy in today's Democratic Party--Edwards may be the most viable national candidate since Bobby Kennedy to tie his destiny to a fight for the destitute. "Yeah, I heard all that stuff: 'Who cares?' or 'It's a dead end'," Edwards tells NEWSWEEK. "Well, it's what I want to do."

Rebel outsider is an odd role for the Democratic Party's most recent vice presidential candidate to play. Yet Edwards's 2008 presidential campaign--still hypothetical but proceeding at high speed--is all about breaking with the established script. He's largely opted out of the buzz primary--leaving candidates like former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh to convince Beltway insiders and media types that they're the best alternatives to front runner Hillary Clinton. Instead, he's using the name recognition he built up in '04 and hitting the campaign trail early and often--quietly raising $6.5 million in 105 appearances for Democrats running in 2006.

His under-the-radar strategy is paying off, in Iowa at least. A June Des Moines Register poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers had Edwards leading a pack of potential presidential candidates that included other widely known names like Clinton, 2004 ticketmate John Kerry and even Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Edwards is certainly not the only candidate hustling in corn-country--Warner and Bayh visited within days of his most recent visit--but with 10 trips to the state since the beginning of 2005, he's logged more time there than any candidate in either party. This time, they're counting on Iowa, which brought John Kerry's candidacy back from the dead in 2004, to propel them into New Hampshire, and beyond. To win, Edwards must leverage his 2004 visibility, shake off the disappointment many Democrats felt at the campaign and emerge from Kerry's shadow as a worthy candidate in his own right.

Edwards talks about 2004 like it was a lifetime ago. His wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after the election. "We just threw ourselves into it," he recalls. "I went with Elizabeth to every chemo test." The twin traumas--losing a national election and watching a spouse suffer--were an enormous emotional load. But Elizabeth's illness helped Edwards keep the election loss in perspective. "The adjustment wasn't that hard," he says, "because I was so focused on getting her well."

Edwards's old running mate, John Kerry, has had a harder time moving on. Relations between the two men were always more functional than friendly, and the two Johns are now eying each other as potential opponents. There is history here: before inviting him to join his ticket, Kerry asked Edwards if he would run against him in 2008 in the event they lost the election the first time around. Edwards, according to two former campaign aides who asked not to be named describing closed-door discussions, was taken aback and ducked the question. (Edwards declined to comment on a private conversation; Kerry was unavailable for comment.)

Still, to truly cut the cord with Kerry-Edwards, the North Carolinian has to shore up the political weaknesses highlighted by the last campaign. Dismissed as a foreign-policy lightweight in '04, he's co-chaired (with former Republican veep candidate Jack Kemp) a task force on U.S.-Russia relations, and traveled to Europe, India and the Middle East. "The important thing," he says, "is making it clear you have a world view." He's signed up with the New York investment group Fortress--a move that may help combat the notion that as a longtime trial lawyer, he's anti-business. (It also helps cover a new home on 100 acres in Chapel Hill.)

One key advantage Edwards is counting on: people know who he is. His retooled stump speech takes ironic jabs at his old campaign persona. ("There is the chance that at least one of you remembers that I'm the son of a millworker," he told the Indianola audience.) His advisers learned in 2004 that the hardest hurdle a candidate faces is simply getting voters to remember his name. That's not a problem in Iowa anymore, they say. "A Warner or Evan Bayh would have to spend $30 million to get where Edwards is," says an aide who asked not to be identified speaking about a still unannounced campaign. Other campaigns point out that a figure as well known as Edwards will have a hard time redefining himself.

Lowered expectations could also help Edwards's chances. In '04, he was billed as Bill Clinton's second coming, and many audiences were disappointed when they saw the real thing. Now he simply has to show more ability to connect with audiences than, say, Hillary or Mark Warner--a somewhat easier hurdle to scale.

Soon, he'll start inching back toward the limelight. This fall, Elizabeth will publish a memoir; publicity plans include an excerpt in People magazine and major television appearances. But Iowa looms largest, and as the caucuses get closer, Edwards will have to take bigger steps to prove he really is a new man. After his Indianola speech, Edwards disappears into the star-struck crowd of well-wishers. "I really hope you'll get in again," a woman wearing an iowans for edwards 2008 button says to him. "Thank you, ma'am," the former senator replies. "Yes," she says, "and I hope you'll really fight this time."