MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb. 5 -- Former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) returned to New Hampshire on Saturday for what could be described as a coda to the 2004 presidential campaign or as the opening stanza of what many Democrats anticipate will be a second Edwards bid for the White House in 2008.
The Democrats' 2004 vice presidential nominee was the featured speaker at the New Hampshire Democratic Party's winter fundraising dinner. In a season of disappointment, the Granite State stands as one bright spot for the Democrats, the lone state they were able to take back from President Bush. As Edwards told the audience of activists, "You turned the page, and you were the first in the country to turn a red state into a blue state."
The New Hampshire outing signaled Edwards's public reemergence since the end of the election and since his wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer. He has begun a new phase in a life that included two decades as a successful trial lawyer and a single term in the Senate that propelled him into the presidential race and onto the Democratic ticket.
Edwards fielded questions a few hours before the speech, wearing a bright blue sweater and hiking boots, and sipping a clear, carbonated, decaffeinated drink, having recently sworn off the Diet Cokes he has consumed in prodigious quantities for many years.
He resisted looking back at the reasons he and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost the election but quibbled with those who have said the Democrats face a values deficit or that Democrats cannot compete in the South and in rural areas. "We didn't run a campaign in the South," he said. "In the future, it's important for us to compete everywhere in the country."
Democrats, he said, do not need to change their positions to become competitive again. "I just think that trying to figure out how to change our position a little bit on this and a little bit on that is dead wrong," he said. "We ought to stand up for what we believe in, we ought to make clear the country knows what we believe in and what it is we want to do, from Day One."
That theme dominated his speech Saturday evening. "All the political experts since the election have been talking about what the Democrats believe in. . . . Some of them have been saying we don't stand for anything," he said, adding, "We believe in hope over despair, we believe in possibilities over problems, we believe in optimism over cynicism. We believe in doing what's right even when others say it can't be done. And we believe in fighting desperately for those who have no voice in America."
Edwards's speech echoed the themes of optimism and populism that fueled his rise in the Democratic primaries a year ago, and the enthusiastic reception he received was a reminder of why many Democrats see him as an attractive potential candidate in 2008. But when asked about another possible run for the White House, Edwards demurred.
"I'm looking at getting Elizabeth well, which is for our family by far the great priority now," he said, adding that her treatments are continuing and that she is doing well. "I want to be certain that I spend my other time and energy besides helping getting Elizabeth well, all on things I care deeply about. . . . Then, somewhere down the road, after Elizabeth is well, I'll decide about the future."
Now a private citizen again, Edwards has begun to put together the pieces that will help to keep him visible politically while deepening his knowledge of domestic and international issues. On Friday, officials at the University of North Carolina announced that Edwards will head a new Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity, a nonpartisan entity that will let him explore the divisions between the nation's rich and poor, a subject that animated his presidential campaign.
Edwards expects to be involved in several foreign policy ventures that will allow him to travel abroad and strengthen his national security credentials. He also has signed on with the Harry Walker Agency for what he said will be paid and unpaid speeches in the United States and abroad. He retains his One America political action committee and is fielding a series of speaking invitations from state Democratic parties.
If and when the time comes for another campaign, Edwards will have the infrastructure in place. Almost the entire team from his past campaign remains ready for a second run. But despite his successes in that campaign -- finishing as Kerry's last real opponent, becoming Kerry's choice for vice president and winning high marks for dueling Vice President Cheney in their debate -- the road ahead for Edwards has a number of obstacles.
Without his Senate position, he may find it more difficult to maintain both visibility and relevance within the party, and, said several Democratic and Republican strategists privately, he will have to overcome questions that linger from his first campaign. "His problem as a candidate wasn't his skill set or anything mechanical," one Democrat said, "but the sense among voters that . . . there wasn't any real preparation for the job. Without that seat or a real policymaking job, he just can't fix that very real problem."
Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary to President Bill Clinton, said, "He needs to find two or three issues that both work for his economic populism and are central to the ongoing national debate. He also needs to burnish his foreign policy credentials. I think he can get both done. Democrats are now clearly the party of opposition. And as that party, anyone making a compelling case, and anyone the press cares about, can be a strong voice. In other words, you don't have to be in the Senate."
If he decides to run again, Edwards could end up in a primary that includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Kerry. Asked whether he would defer to Kerry, Edwards said only, "We talk all the time"; he gave no indication that his decision would be based on Kerry's.
Edwards said he misses campaigning but not so much the Senate, noting that the break from public life has come at an important moment in his life. "Just to be direct and blunt about it, Elizabeth needs me," he said. "She's always been there for me. I've got to be there for her." Had he and Kerry been elected, he said, "it would have been not easy" to assume the office of vice presidency while dealing with his wife's illness. But he added, "Not that I wouldn't have chosen that alternative."