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The Goods

He’s the most naturally gifted politician in years, Bubba with morals. But can a nice guy finish first?

John Edwards  

It was just the latest in a series of eighteen-hour campaign days, and John Edwards had a screaming headache. He’d flown from Missouri to Greenville, South Carolina, for an afternoon speech, participated in a spirited debate with his Democratic rivals that evening, and arrived, after a two-hour drive, at 1 a.m. in the tiny town of Aiken, to be in place to schmooze the breakfast crowd at Shoney’s the next morning. “I need you to change this country,” he’d drawled to the SRO crowd of coffee drinkers and doughnut dunkers. “I can’t do it alone.”

Now, late on this Friday afternoon—having crisscrossed South Carolina to speak at three other rallies, repeating his stump speech word-for-word, staying unshakably on-message (“The South isn’t George Bush’s backyard, it’s my backyard”)—the normally upbeat Edwards, fighting off bronchitis, wearily boarded his deluxe campaign bus in Sumter, desperate for some downtime. A CNN crew followed for a promised interview; the tone of the questions was so adversarial that Edwards, usually deft at finessing situations, gave brief, annoyed responses, disavowing yet again any desire to be John Kerry’s vice-president. (“Not interested,” said the senator. “You ruling it out?” the reporter persisted. “Yes,” he snapped.)

After the crew left, as the bus began rolling toward the state capital—where Edwards would preside at a fund-raiser alongside Hootie and the Blowfish and then take a late-night flight to Albuquerque—the candidate walked to the back, sprawled on a blue leather built-in couch, and within moments was sound asleep, oblivious to the raucous laughter of Cate, his Princeton-senior daughter, and two aides. Upon arriving in Columbia at his home-away-from-home for the past two years—the white, antique-filled house of his state chairman, lawyer John Moylan—Edwards, disoriented, stumbled out, asking his staff, “Do I come back here tomorrow night? Do I get to stay here?”

Assured the answer was yes, he disappeared into the house, only to emerge a few minutes later, nearly unrecognizable. The serious dark suit, sincere tie, and ever-crisp white shirt had been replaced with a bright-orange windbreaker, green shorts, and sneakers. He set out, a lone man running four miles in the dusk, running off the tension and the questions and the demands, feet beating the pavement while his mind restlessly reviewed the state of his I-think-I-can quest.

With spring fast approaching, Edwards is running against the clock in his race for the Democratic nomination. Every minute, every hour, brings new voters to be won over, money to be raised, press to be wooed—all in the pressure cooker of a campaign calendar contrived to benefit the front-runner, now John Kerry. “The system was invented to produce an early knockout,” says David Axelrod, Edwards’s ad maker. “If John Edwards had enough time, he’d be the nominee. Kerry is trying to play the inevitability card against us. Time is our enemy.”

It has been a wild ride these past few weeks as Edwards turned from an asterisk into Kerry’s last plausible challenger. Before his strong second-place showing in Iowa, the Edwards campaign was living hand-to-mouth; since then, a top fund-raiser, Eileen Kotecki, jokes that 3:45 p.m. has become “my favorite time of day—that’s when the last FedEx delivery arrives” with infusions of cash, allowing the campaign to buy vital ad time in critical markets.

Desperate for an unobstructed shot at Kerry, Edwards has vowed to stay in the race at least through the March 2 New York and California primaries. While the odds are long against an upset, in this anything-can-happen year it’s not quite over yet. But even if Edwards doesn’t make it, he could, despite his numerous and unconvincing protestations, wind up linking arms in July with Kerry at the Boston convention as the running mate. Or Edwards could be at the end of a meteoric six-year political career, since he reluctantly renounced running for reelection to the Senate to make his White House bid. Indeed, he has been planning this race virtually since the Supreme Court handed the presidency to George Bush in December 2000, the North Carolina senator’s ambitions whetted after being narrowly edged out by Joe Lieberman as Al Gore’s vice-presidential choice.

Back in spring 2001, when I spent two days in an SUV with Edwards driving the back roads of his state and going to town meetings, he was already honing his populist I’m-the-son-of-a-millworker speech. In several subsequent off-the-record dinners and conversations with him and his wife, Elizabeth (they have been notably press-friendly), the implicit assumption was always that the 2004 Democratic race would come down to a battle between him and Kerry—the populist versus the patrician, the son of a millworker versus the son of a diplomat. But the dramatic ascent of Howard Dean and the distraction created by Wesley Clark’s late entry combined to deprive Edwards of the compare-and-contrast battle he craved.

At least till now. Today he’s leading a breathless Magical Mystery Tour– meets–Lost in America campaign. “He’s pushing himself as hard as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says David Ginsberg, his youthful communications director. Elizabeth stashed books of favorite song lyrics on the bus, periodically insisting that everyone break into song (from “Lemon Tree” to “How’d You Like to Spoon With Me”), to lift spirits and combat monotony. Campaign theme songs—either John Mellencamp’s “Small Town” or “Your Life Is Now”—blare at ear-splitting volume wherever the bus pulls up for a rally, and afterward the camera-ready Edwards always poses, hanging out the bus window, as his two youngest children—the imperious Emma Claire, 5, and clueless but blissed-out Jack, 3—wave jubilantly. “He is an uncomplaining, relentless warrior,” says adman Axelrod, “and when you work for him, it’s contagious.”