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The Boyish Wonder

Happy warrior: He was no superstar. But John Edwards's determination and ability to read the defense took him to the top

Edwards family photo
Golden boy: Behind Edwards's bright eyes lies a fierce competitiveness

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By Evan Thomas, Susannah Meadows and Arian Campo-Flores

July 19 issue - In politics, self-made men seem to fall into two categories: sunny and dark. Both Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon began as farm boys, but while Ike radiated corn-fed smiles, Nixon seemed to be constantly brooding over some slight. In the 2004 election, Dick Cheney projects the bleakness of a Wyoming winter, while John Edwards always appears to be strolling in the Carolina sunshine.

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Why is Edwards smiling? Not because his life has been easy. As he never tires of telling you, he grew up in a poor mill town, and as he never mentions, he lost his 16-year-old son in a freak car accident. He smiles not just because he is nice (or as he says it, "nah-a-ace") but because he is a flat-out competitor who enjoys winning and almost always does. He is nice, but he is also cagey, relentless and driven. His ambition knows no bounds. He will cheerfully try to help John Kerry win the presidency even as he plans and maneuvers to succeed him.

Kerry learned not to underestimate Edwards on the campaign trail, and Vice President Cheney (and potential Democratic presidential rival Hillary Clinton) probably already knows not to mistake Edwards's bland warmth for lightness or laziness. On the playing fields and in the courtrooms of North Carolina are many men who were juked, worn down and just plain beaten silly by Edwards's natural gifts and endless preparation.

All his life Edwards has been teased as a pretty boy. Today Republican operatives sneeringly call him "the Breck Girl" for his shiny mop of hair. Edwards's college pals, too, razzed him when he would "kind of fluff his hair up," recalls John Huffman, his suite mate at North Carolina State. Edwards "didn't like to lose, and he'd let you know he was winning," says Huffman. But Edwards is not remembered as the Big Man on Campus. He was not seen as a strutter or a showoff. His charm grew slowly over time, fed by success.

Edwards's teachers, friends and even his own parents do not recall that he was particularly charismatic as a boy. "He just gradually grew on you," recalls Cecil Hackney, the former principal of North Moore High School in Robbins, N.C. "I knew he was a good-looking boy, but he didn't go around like he thought it. He didn't try to be a star. He was a little more normal." His mother, Bobbie, tells NEWSWEEK: "He was just an ordinary kid." But he was obviously bright and (even more important in his working-class town) a very good athlete. His parents could see his determination. "I think he learned early on that if he was determined enough and worked hard enough, he could accomplish anything," says Bobbie.

Brian Strickland / Zuma for Newsweek
The parents: Wallace and Bobbie Edwards

Raised as a God-fearing Baptist, Edwards was taught by his parents to respect others. This was not an idle exhortation. When his friend and football teammate Bobby Caviness lost his parents while he was still in high school, John and his family had Caviness, who is black, over to the house every game day to make sure he had a good meal. "That was unheard of, for a black person to be eating dinner that often at a white person's house in the late '60s and early '70s," says Caviness. In homeroom, Edwards would ask Caviness if he'd done his homework. Edwards would look it over, Caviness warmly recalls, and tell him, "You might take another look at No. 7."

In Edwards's home county, which was one-quarter black, class resentments loomed larger than racial ones. Although his father, Wallace, worked his way up to become a manager at the mill, young John was keenly aware of the limits of a blue-collar background. "The only way you were successful is you went to college," Wallace Edwards tells NEWSWEEK. "He saw me passed up for a lot of promotions. I trained a lot of college guys. They were getting paid more than I was, and I trained them." The summer between high school and college, John worked at the mill swabbing out the looms. "It was a nasty job," his father recalls. "The guys, the mechanics who worked on them, a lot of them chewed tobacco and spit it into the machines. Tobacco on the floor, in the machines. He didn't say, 'I don't want to do this for the rest of my life'—he said, 'I'm not going to'."

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Getting to know one another, on the grand stage. A chat with the new team
Alter: The Art of the Closing Argument
A good political speech should resemble a good closing argument, where the case builds slowly to a devastating conclusion about the defendant
John Edwards: VP Hopeful, Boyish Wonder
Happy warrior: He was no superstar. But John Edwards's determination and ability to read the defense took him to the top
Elizabeth Edwards: A Woman of the People
She lost a child, fought late-in-life fertility issues and is trying the South Beach diet. Elizabeth Edwards can relate
As a young boy, watching "Perry Mason" and "The Fugitive" on TV, Edwards dreamed of becoming a lawyer. "Probably the most important reason I want to be a defense attorney is that I would like to protect innocent people from blind justice the best I can," he wrote in a school essay when he was 11 years old.

He had all the tools to be great in the courtroom. His memory is prodigious, near photographic, and he is a born storyteller. But his greatest skill may be intuitive, an athlete's instinctive sense of anticipation, honed by practice. He was a football star in high school, not so much because of his physical ability (though he had exceptional hands for catching a football) but because he had an uncanny knack for gauging his opponents. "He'd say, 'If you see No. 48 over there put his hands on his hips, you know they're going to run. If you see he puts his hands on his knees, he's going to pass'," recalls Caviness. In college, Edwards would act as a scout for his old high-school basketball coach before the state tournament. "He was good at reading defenses and offenses, what tendencies they had, if a guard couldn't dribble to his left, what defenses they played, all the information you'd need if you were going to play a team," says Bill Garner, his college roommate.

As a schoolboy athlete, Edwards never sulked in defeat. "If he didn't play well, he'd get quiet for a while," recalls his mother. "He was mulling over in his mind how he'd played and how he could change it the next instance, what he could do differently." His father adds: "He was always thinking about the next time." He made the football team at Clemson but didn't get a scholarship, so he transferred after a semester to NC State and began grinding out the A's to get into law school. Always, he was moving up: to the more prestigious University of North Carolina, where he made law review and met his match, his future wife, Elizabeth. She was every bit as bright as he was, if not brighter. Edwards said goodbye to his high-school sweetheart, who had transferred to Chapel Hill to be with him.

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Over the years, Edwards's courtroom opponents came to regard him with ungrudging awe. "He didn't have any weaknesses," says James Cooney, who faced him in about a dozen cases. "He was never underhanded. If I was in a trial with John Edwards and I ever had to pull a knife out of my back, it was only because he shoved it through my chest." In cross-examinations, Edwards's "style was gentle," says Cooney. "He never yelled at a witness. He didn't try to physically dominate a witness—when he got done, when the witnesses stood up, all their clothes fell off."

The more he won, the more confident he got. He was so sublimely sure of his skills that toward the end of his career he stopped taking depositions of some key witnesses before trial. He could accurately anticipate what they were going to say, and he didn't want to tip his hand. "It was very intimidating," says Cooney. In the case that established his reputation, Edwards represented an alcoholic who had suffered brain damage after being overprescribed with the drug Antabuse. The defense offered to settle for $750,000. "Take it," his client, E. G. Sawyer, typed out on a spelling board he used to communicate. Edwards replied that Sawyer deserved more, and "the jury knows it, too." In the end, Edwards won Sawyer a $3.7 million jury verdict. In his most famous case, representing the family of a little girl who had been disemboweled by an open swimming-pool drain, the defense offered $17.5 million. Edwards demurred—and won $25 million. According to the jury foreman, Ben Griffin, "two of the female jurors were in love with Edwards and wanted to give him everything."

Edwards with his late son Wade, less than a year before Wade's death

Edwards made the jump from law to politics not long after his son, Wade, died when his car was blown off a highway as he drove to the family beach house one day in 1996. Edwards's law partner and friend David Kirby once recalled to the Raleigh News & Observer the day he stood with Edwards outside the hospital where he had gone to identify Wade's body. "I just can't let his death go without some good coming out of it," said Edwards. A few months before he died, Wade had penned an essay called "Fancy Clothes and Overalls," about the importance of voting as a measure of equality. "Wade used to ask him, 'When are you going to run?'" says Gary Pearce, a Democratic consultant who advised Edwards's 1998 U.S. Senate campaign. "Well," Edwards told Pearce, "this is my answer to Wade." Edwards had shown little interest in politics, failing to vote in several elections. But he poured $6 million of his own money and all his honey-coated ferocity into driving out the GOP incumbent, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, in a Republican-dominated state.

He began eying a presidential bid within a couple of years of arriving in the U.S. Senate in January 1999. Ed Turlington, an old law-firm colleague of his, recalls Edwards's hinting at a run as early as the spring of 2001. By September he had begun serious discussions of entering the 2004 race. In politics, as in just about everything else, Edwards has "no fear of losing," says Pearce. "He's been through the worst thing that any human being can go through in life." Steve Jarding, who ran Edwards's PAC until 2002, says: "I remember Elizabeth saying, 'When you lose a son, there's nothing else they can throw at you'." So Edwards, 51, is likely to compete for the top job for years to come—smiling nicely, burning to win.

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