The Goods

John EdwardsPhoto: Globe Photos

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.”

The bus is a rolling living room, with local politicians, major donors, and VIP supporters hopping on for a ride. In New Hampshire, Glenn Close came on for two days, entertaining the travelers with her menacing Cruella De Vil persona (“Do you have any little puppies?”), to the delight of the shrieking kids.

Joking and teasing, Edwards is at ease with his young staff, but in public he’s become much more guarded, rarely taking questions from voters, convinced that staying on-message—“My campaign is not about the politics of cynicism, it’s about the politics of hope”—represents the ticket to victory. He’s a charismatic speaker who connects—exit polls have shown he scores much higher than Kerry in the category of “cares about people like me”—but at times Edwards leaves audiences hungry for more specifics of his plans for health care, college-tuition help, or resolving the Iraq morass. Yet his movie-star looks and dazzling grin continue to draw crowds. At Allen University, a predominantly black school in Columbia, the handmade signs carried by students included DON’T HATE ME BECAUSE I’M BEAUTIFUL.

These days, Edwards no longer automatically turns on his charm for the press corps, rarely offering off-the-record hang-out time and instead doling out a few one-on-one interviews daily along with brief press conferences. Reporters, bored with hearing the same stump speech four times a day, constantly try to provoke him. “John was doing an issue a week, but the press wrote next to nothing about it,” says Elizabeth Edwards. “They just want him to take out an AK-47 and aim it at other candidates. You can present a great policy idea, but you all write about the train wreck.”

Elizabeth frequently strolls the sidelines at events unaccompanied by handlers, answering with dry wit whatever questions, silly or serious, reporters toss at her. When a reporter for Chinese television asked whether she missed spending time with her husband these days (she spends half her time campaigning on her own), she replied, “We’ve been married for 26 years. I know what he looks like.” When another reporter wondered about her power in setting strategy, she quipped, “There’s a 5-year-old on the bus who will tell you she’s the most important person in this campaign.” And when a journalist mentioned that the couple was rich thanks to the millions her husband earned as a trial lawyer, she said, totally deadpan, “I know—isn’t it just awful?”

Though Edwards harps on his humble origins and inspiring autobiography, he never voluntarily mentions the most painful episode in his life, the death of his teenage son Wade in an auto accident in 1996. It’s something he wants people to know—he discussed his agony in his book, Four Trials—but has long said that he would not play the sympathy card and exploit a private tragedy for political gain. Axelrod says that when Edwards was asked recently by a voter about a pin he always wears on his lapel, the senator simply replied that it was an Outward Bound pin, choosing not to explain that it had belonged to Wade. Perhaps because Elizabeth is more approachable, strangers aware of Wade’s death often stop her to share their own tragedies.

“People will give me a note, you open it later and realize that you should have given them a big hug,” she says. “Or they’ll tap me on the shoulder. It’s a bond you have with people. It doesn’t make me unhappy or nervous or awkward. You just let everything else drop; this is the most important thing at this moment.”

On primary day in South Carolina, while waiting for the polls to close, Edwards and his wife spent the afternoon at the Moylans’ house in Columbia. Hoarse from bronchitis, Edwards stayed mostly off the phone to rest his voice, but still went for a long run. Rehearsing his speech, he paced the floor, too wired to sit. The exit polls made it clear that he had won big-time; the pool press were supposed to arrive at 6:30 sharp for a quick photo op, but because of a snafu showed up twenty minutes late.

Edwards wanted to savor the triumphant moment when the networks named him the victor at 7 p.m. in private, with family and friends, so he urged chief of staff Miles Lackey to get the press in and out quickly. The still photographers ran into the living room just as Dan Rather was saying he’d be announcing the winner shortly, and got less than three minutes before being ushered out. Then it was the reporters’ turn. “What will winning South Carolina mean for your finances?” was the first question. Edwards looked flabbergasted: “That’s what you want to know?” “I guess,” Elizabeth quipped, “I can afford to go shopping.” The reporters asked just a few more questions, but by the time they were rushed out the door, the networks had already made the call—and Edwards had missed it.

South Carolina is the one state where he’s taken the gold so far; winning the Mr. Congeniality Awards in Tennessee and Virginia last week in his backyard was not exactly a resounding vote of confidence. As soon as the polls close in Wisconsin on Tuesday, Edwards plans to jet into Manhattan for fund-raisers and rallies, to make his final case before perhaps his most cynical audience to date. Can this happy warrior with a southern accent hold back the darkly complex Vietnam vet who has the entire Eastern establishment in his corner? It’s unlikely, but New Yorkers have always had a soft spot for wide-eyed, anything’s-possible dreamers.

The Goods