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Starting Gun

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While he easily made powerful Democratic allies, Edwards sees another side of a man whom many in his party see only one way: Senator Jesse Helms. Their relationship had begun back when the junior senator was merely a grieving constituent. "Senator Helms called us, wrote us a wonderful letter, gave a speech about Wade on the floor of the Senate -- Wade, my son. And you just don't forget things like that," Edwards says. "There are lots of things that Senator Helms and I have disagreed about since I've been here. But things like that just stay with you."

"Bring us the ambulance chaser!" Ari Fleischer said on the Bush-campaign plane last August, rubbing his hands together.

John Edwards's life was in turnaround. In April 2000, he had received word that Warren Christopher wanted to talk to him about the possibility of joining Gore's ticket. Edwards submitted files about his finances and his professional history. Vetters pored over his caseload. Christopher, Gore's self-proclaimed "Yoda," set up a July meeting at the vice-president's mansion, and Edwards and Gore hit it off. Robbins was a good deal like Carthage, the hometown that looms large in Gore's personal landscape. The two southern drawlers spoke the same language.

By August, the vice-president was eager to flatten Bush's bounce in the polls after the GOP convention, so he ordered his aides to announce his whittled-down list. Edwards, Joseph Lieberman, and four others: Senators Evan Bayh and John Kerry; Congressman Richard Gephardt; Governor Jeanne Shaheen. Later, he added mention of a mystery "wild card" candidate, believed to have been outgoing senator Bob Kerrey.

Edwards was told it was down to him and one other. Gore-campaign chairman Bill Daley was demanding more data from him, including information to set up rallies in Robbins and in his wife's hometown. The senator and his entire network of friends, colleagues, and clients submitted to interviews for preliminary profiles, packages that could quickly be dropped in the next week's newspapers. A half-dozen TV crews camped outside the Edwards homes on Embassy Row (where he shares a backyard with Vernon Jordan) and in Raleigh. Reporters followed him to church.

"People know intuitively whether you're listening to them, whether you think you're better than them or smarter than them."

The phone rang on Saturday, August 5. Daley again, wanting Edwards to show up for a final Q&A across town in Daley's Pennsylvania Avenue condo. "I'll send a car over," the chairman offered. No go, Edwards said -- the reporters would get whipped into a frenzy. So Edwards devised an ordinary trip to his Senate office, trotting off to his dusty black Buick with Diet Coke cans and toddler juice cups rolling around, leading a convoy of reporters' SUVs to Capitol Hill. He left them behind at the ramped entrance to the underground senatorial parking garage. Inside, he parked his car and climbed into the passenger seat of a staff member's car. With his press secretary at the wheel, the senator left the lot undetected.

After his Daley meeting, Edwards went home with a vague you'll-know-when-you-know forecast and endured 36 hours of eerie silence. The Gores kept their own counsel until inviting aides in late Sunday night. Bob Shrum, the campaign consultant who worked for Gore, Edwards, and John Kerry, made his case for Edwards as a fresh face, but it was futile: The family had their hearts set on their old friends, the Liebermans.

Lieberman had many qualities the Gores were ready for: pioneer status as a Jewish-American politician; a commitment to Orthodoxy that delighted religious fundamentalists; a legislative record as a values-minded, pro-defense moderate; an on-the-record disdain for the sins of Clinton. Edwards lacked each of these, most woefully the record of accomplishments. Daley had let Edwards know the trial-lawyer stigma was not a concern. The lack of experience would be at most a two-week wound to the campaign; he would simply need time to show his face and let Americans hear his voice. Word leaked that Warren Christopher believed Edwards would be president one day, and his charisma might draw attention to Gore's deficiencies in that department. Tipper Gore reportedly had another anxiety: She was worried about whether Elizabeth Edwards knew what she was getting into. After all, she had given birth only ten weeks earlier.

The next morning, Edwards found out about the selection the same way Lieberman did -- by watching Claire Shipman on NBC's Today show. In a way, Edwards's life quickly returned to normal. In another way, it will never be the same again.

Will John Edwards grow on us? Or shrink on us?

If you're a Democrat wanting to win the White House, you run in three races. First, you run to be the top money-getter in New York and Los Angeles. Second, you run for the endorsement of the AFL-CIO. Third, you woo about 30,000 New Hampshire Democrats. Then you're running for president. But only in about eighteen states.

For Edwards, the coming months will bring those challenges, plus the more deeply personal kind of obstacles that every candidate must overcome.

First, there's the burden of his success. George W. Bush may have sold many a Texas dry well to Ohio-based investors, but this was seen as trying to make something out of nothing, and the business community's backing helped to cover his tracks as a poor prospector. Edwards, a real Horatio Alger risk-taker, will be begrudged his winnings. Even Gore, after choosing Lieberman, told his staff back in August: "I think for $6 million, a lot of people could be a good politician." Gore's staff leaked it and later claimed Gore was upset to read it in print. One senator, with Edwards's interests in mind, saw it as a till-we-meet-again potshot.

And then there's the ambulance-chaser moniker; his success as a plaintiff's attorney will seem to some like making money out of misery. "I'm proud of what I've spent my life doing," Edwards insists. "I've basically spent it fighting for children and families against some very powerful opponents. I didn't take cases that I didn't think were very strong on the merits. And we investigated every case before we decided to take it, which is unusual."

Edwards and his family will also have to get used to public scrutiny; the death of their son is a personal story Edwards is at pains not to exploit. Still, he seems increasingly aware that it draws people in, brings strangers to tears. In many ways, talking about it -- a balm for the traumatized -- may be a necessity for the candidate. "To date, the only safe territory for him has been to not discuss it," says a confidant. Not long ago, at an address to an Ashville-high-school student body, Edwards halted mid-remarks, and a long and uncomfortable silence ensued before he had collected himself enough to continue. A face in the crowd had reminded him of Wade.

For his family, the public scrutiny will be just as hard. His wife, for instance, will likely have to endure questions, like Tipper Gore before her, about her struggles with her emotions and her weight, about her decision to have two more children so late in life.

You can only confront these hurdles with confidence, which Edwards amply has.

"People know -- this includes voters, it includes people sitting on juries, it includes the people who serve in the Congress -- they know intuitively whether you're treating them with respect or not, whether you're listening to them, whether you're being condescending, whether you think you're better than them or smarter than them," he says, attempting an eye lock. "Nobody in America needs anybody to tell them that. They know it. And they have -- when people treat them that way -- they have the right response, which is not to pay attention to them."


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