"He was involved in every aspect" of the bill, McCain recalled in an interview. "He brought his trial lawyer background [to the deliberations], and he had a formidable ability to debate on the floor."
The bill, including Edwards's proposal to allow more latitude for lawsuits than many Republicans could accept, passed the Senate but died in mid-2002 when senators failed to agree with the Bush administration on damage limits for suits against health plans. Some Republicans blamed Edwards for the talks' collapse, saying he was too rigid and stubborn in the negotiations. McCain saw it differently. "He was pretty hard-line with the White House," McCain said. "But I don't think the White House was ever serious about the bill. They just wanted the issue to go away."
Edwards has joined McCain and Kennedy in reintroducing the bill, but it has gone nowhere.
Edwards, teaming up again with a bipartisan group of senators including McCain, had better luck with another health issue: legislation to encourage the development and production of generic drugs, which generally cost less than brand-name drugs. Approved by the Senate and rejected by the House, the measure was included in modified form in the Medicare prescription drug benefit bill that was approved by Congress and signed by the president last year.
Edwards has also been active on environmental, banking, privacy and intelligence issues. As a member of the Judiciary Committee, he drew praise from liberals -- and denunciations from conservatives -- for his sharp, almost prosecutorial questioning of judicial nominee Charles W. Pickering Sr. about back-channel communications with the Justice Department in a cross-burning case. Bush gave Pickering a recess appointment earlier this year, sidestepping a Democratic filibuster that Edwards supported.
As for trade, Edwards did not take the hard-line protectionist stance of southerners such as Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) and fellow North Carolinian Sen. Jesse Helms (R). Rather, Edwards tried to navigate a centrist path between free trade and high barriers.
He voted for a major bill in 2002 to give the president "fast track" authority to reach trade deals with foreign leaders, but voted against it 10 weeks later, after the bill was modified in ways that changed only a handful of other votes. In explaining his switch, Edwards noted that the House-Senate negotiators had dropped some of his amendments intended to help textile workers, including one that would have subsidized community colleges that retrain laid-off workers.
Edwards voted against trade pacts with Chile, Singapore and Africa, which Kerry supported. But he voted in 2000 to grant most-favored-nation trading status to China, as did Kerry and most other senators. "I think it's clear that Senator Kerry and I have very different records on trade," Edwards recently told reporters. On the same day, Kerry declared: "We have the same policy on trade -- exactly the same policy."
In discussing trade, Edwards focuses on the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement, which was enacted with Kerry's support five years before Edwards entered the Senate. While his campaign statements assert that "Edwards has consistently opposed NAFTA," the North Carolina senator recently told New York Times editors that NAFTA "is an important part of our global economy," although he wants tougher protections for the environment and worker conditions.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.