FILE PHOTO Kerry Taps Edwards As Running Mate
Shaun Heasley  /  Getty Images file
Edwards won only the South Carolina primary as a presidential candidate, but his campaign skills won him a spot on the ticket anyway.
updated 8/28/2004 3:39:07 PM ET 2004-08-28T19:39:07

It was nearly 30 years ago that a second-year law student named John Edwards sat down with his law-student girlfriend, Elizabeth Anania, and put her on notice that he’d like to go into politics someday.

“That wasn’t anything I hated to hear,” Edwards’ future wife remembers thinking during that 1975 conversation.

Edwards didn’t mention the presidency, didn’t say exactly what he meant, Elizabeth Edwards recalled last summer when her husband still was vying for the Democratic presidential nomination.

But looking back, she says she did see the same qualities in him then that have helped propel him onto the Democratic presidential ticket: determination, intellect, compassion and what she calls “the ability to move people.”

It would be 23 years after that 1975 conversation before Edwards made his first move politically. But he shot high when he did.

After two decades as one of the country’s most successful trial lawyers, after the joys of two children and the anguish of losing one of them when he was still in his teens, Edwards came out of nowhere to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1998, defeating incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth in North Carolina.

Textile management to textbook victory
It was a stunning success for the son of a mill worker, for someone who had majored in textile management as an undergraduate — sort of as an insurance policy in case a law career didn’t pan out.

Video: Edwards on the trail “He had set his sights on going to law school but he wanted to have something to fall back on,” recalls his father, Wallace Edwards. “He would still be able to get a good job, maybe a manager.”

As a first-term senator, Edwards quickly set his sights even higher.

He made it onto Al Gore’s short list for a running mate in 2000, and he launched his own campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2003.

Edwards won only the South Carolina primary before his presidential campaign folded, but his skills on the trail, his cheerful demeanor and his message of “Two Americas” struck a note with voters, especially independents and moderate Democrats.

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After dropping out of the primary race, Edwards quickly put his campaign skills to work on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, provoking speculation that what he was really campaigning for was the No. 2 slot on the ticket. The strategy paid off.

Now, as John Kerry’s chosen running mate, Edwards, 51, has the opportunity to spread his can-do message on behalf of the Democratic ticket. At the same time, he must counter criticism that as a first-term senator he lacks the seasoning and foreign policy credentials for such a position.

Dismissed: Questions about his experience
He brushes aside questions about whether he has the experience for a presidential ticket, saying his working-class roots and life story give him all the seasoning he needs.

“The experience I have is the right kind of experience,” he said last year. “I do see things through the eyes of most Americans. I don’t think staying in Washington for decades strengthens your ability to do what needs to be done.”

Republicans, for their part, are out to cast Edwards as a money-chasing trial lawyer. It is an image that Edwards tries to counter by arguing that he represented ordinary people wronged by big businesses and heartless insurance companies.

“I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, usually big insurance companies,” he likes to say. “And my job was to give them a fair shake, to give them a fair chance.”

Despite his good looks and easy smile, Edwards has known suffering. He and his wife lost a teenage son, Wade, in 1996 when high winds swept his Jeep off a North Carolina highway.

Elizabeth Edwards thought her husband’s political ambitions were over, too. But, she says, gradually, talk of politics resumed.

Longtime friend and former law partner David Kirby said that as the family began to reach out after Wade’s death, Edwards, by then an accomplished trial lawyer, displayed an “emerging desire to paint with a broader brush.”

'A larger view of the world'
“I think John began to take a larger view of the world, of his life,” Kirby said.

Elizabeth Edwards says the loss of their son has given the couple “something that we didn’t have before.” A small problem or annoyance is easier to keep in perspective, she said last year. “It’s not that we’re invincible, but it just doesn’t bother us in the way it would before.”

Video: Convention preview Although they were in their 40s and had a surviving daughter, Cate, the couple decided to have two more children. Emma Claire and Jack are now six and four; Cate is 22.

Edwards says his favorite lazy-day activity is watching “Scooby Doo” with his youngest kids.

His favorite comedy is “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” says his wife. Elizabeth Edwards says her husband has good “receptors” for humor but isn’t much of a jokester himself.

“I didn’t marry him because I thought he was funny,” she says.

Friends say Edwards never met a dessert that he didn’t think could be improved by heaping some ice cream on top, but his diet has improved since his lawyering days when he was “probably McDonald’s best customer in America,” says Kirby.

Now, Edwards says, Diet Coke is probably his biggest junk food vice.

Edwards’ TV viewing, when there’s time, trends toward sports. Give him some time and he’ll go running.

His musical tastes are eclectic — everything from jazz to Rolling Stones to Faith Hill.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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