John Edwards: Union man (cont.)

by Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

Like whether he intends to reduce the federal government's huge deficits. "Now here's the truth - you deserve to know the truth," he tells another questioner. "I am committed to not making the deficit worse. But I do not put deficit reduction on the same level with universal health care or the transformation we're going to need on global warming. I may disappoint you, and if deficit reduction is your thing, I may lose you on this. But you should know the truth."

The town hall ends with a rousing standing ovation, but this audience of students and senior citizens and farmers and union workers is not ready to go home yet. Dozens surround Edwards, shaking his hand, snapping cell phone photos. The crowd surrounding his wife, Elizabeth, is even deeper - mostly women, lined up patiently, her book "Saving Graces" and their pens in hand.

Elizabeth Edwards is the candidate's not-so-secret weapon, which accounts for the vast outpouring of sympathy in March when she learned that her breast cancer had returned and was treatable but not curable. Her book chronicles the family's devastation after losing their 16-year-old son, Wade, in a 1996 car crash and, more recently, her battle with cancer. What also comes through in her story is a zest for the campaign trail. "I thrived on this fight," Elizabeth Edwards writes of the 2004 campaign. "I needed it."

A more mature and confident candidate

As a youth, John Edwards was enthralled with "The Fugitive," the TV series about a doctor on the lam after being wrongfully accused of murder. "I remember my building fury when - week after week - no one ever bothered to take Dr. Kimble's side and make things right for him, or even try." Edwards's recent politics have been characterized as concern for lifting the poor. But at root, it's more about righting wrongs. There's a sense of grievance in his poverty rhetoric.

The nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook calls Edwards's 2004 "two Americas" speech - in which the candidate accused a "handful of big corporations and insiders" of destroying the middle class - "about as close to class warfare as you've ever seen a politician do." In the years since, Edwards has shaved the edges of his rhetoric, but a theme of haves vs. have-nots still underlies his campaign.

He commonly portrays his childhood in the have-not category. But the reality is more complicated. True, his father started off as a worker in the Milliken & Co. textile mills. But by the time Edwards was 12, Wallace Edwards had risen into management, and the family had settled into a middle-class brick ranch house in Robbins, N.C. Yet his father felt both snubbed and held back by his lack of college education, angry that he wasn't treated with the "respect he felt he was entitled to," as Edwards once said.

As a 6-year-old being bullied by mill-town boys, Johnny took to heart his father's counsel to quit whining and punch back. So it was natural that as a young man Edwards was drawn to law school and the arena of personal-injury litigation, where he was able to internalize tragic stories of average folks to retell to juries of other average folks.

According to a new analysis compiled by Lawyers' Weekly, Edwards won 54 cases with judgments of more than $1 million. All told, Fortune estimates that Edwards's cases brought revenues of about $67 million to his law firm.

Three things made John Edwards the most famous trial lawyer in North Carolina: exhaustive prep, compelling storytelling and staying on offense. In the two years after the Kerry-Edwards defeat, he applied all three in a determined bid to become a different candidate than he was in 2004.

In 2005, Edwards started a think tank, the privately funded University of North Carolina Center on Poverty, Work, and Opportunity, aiming to put flesh on the bones of his "two Americas" theme. "We have done very little to create upward mobility in the market," he said at a 2005 roundtable of poverty experts. He also concluded that the gap between rich and poor "probably can only be filled by government" and suggested that expanding union membership was the surest way to raise wages.

Edwards joined the pro-labor American Rights at Work and created a network of powerful allies like Anna Burger, the chair of Change to Win, a political alliance of seven unions representing six million workers. While Burger stresses that union endorsements are months away, she is an avid Edwards admirer, describing him as a more mature and confident candidate this time around. "He knows who he is," she says.

Part of that comes from a level of preparation that was missing in 2004, when reporters noticed that Edwards was sometimes winging it on issues. He has also come to rely more on the riveting storytelling talents that he employed to woo juries in the 1990s. "To get John's attention, don't start with how well your idea polls," Elizabeth writes. "Start with 'I met a young father who ...' or 'I have an aunt who inspects nursing homes, and she said ...' Maybe it was the storyteller in John."

Fighting for the little guy made John Edwards a rich man. But unless you're a Kennedy (even then it's problematic), overt wealth can come back to haunt a politician carrying a working-class message.

When news of the couple's newly constructed North Carolina estate, complete with aerial photos, emerged in late January, it swamped the campaign. The $6 million - plus compound includes a recreational facility built to look like a red barn, featuring a basketball court, a squash court, a swimming pool and a room called "John's Lounge."

Elizabeth Edwards assured liberal bloggers that the sprawling compound was energy efficient. But the damage had been done. "Well, I think we know which America he's living in," joked Jay Leno.

Two months later he again became the butt of jokes with a pair of $400 haircuts. That was followed by a Washington Post report detailing his ties to a hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group, which hired Edwards as a consultant in 2005 and whose employees have contributed to his presidential campaign. Fortress once sheltered its hedge funds in the Cayman Islands, even though Edwards had denounced offshore tax havens.

While Edwards routinely attacks the usual array of big-business suspects - he promises to eliminate the oil industry's subsidies, Big Pharma's political power and the Bush tax cuts - he is avoiding the overt class-warfare riffs that caught Charlie Cook's attention four years ago. "This time around it's more nuanced - it's more about guilt," says Cook. "You can't look like you're going to confiscate what [rich people] earn. Politically, it's a more palatable message and not as hypocritical."

Nevertheless, should Edwards overcome stiff odds and win the presidency, a new and more hostile day is sure to dawn for Washington's business interests, particularly if Democrats retain control of Congress. Legislation to make union organizing easier would readily pass (already it passed the House this year), as well as other measures to boost the bargaining leverage of organized labor. Universal health care, mostly resisted by the private sector, would top his agenda.

The hyper-cautious Hillary Clinton learned the dangers of a frontal assault on business interests with the disastrous reception to her 1993 health-care plan. Barack Obama hails from the party's liberal-left wing, but prizes consensus. For President Edwards, though, the grievances of working Americans would land squarely at the door of corporate America.

Reporter associates Doris Burke and Joan L. Levinstein contributed to this article. Top of page