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John Edwards Doesn't Rule Out Return to Politics; He's Focused on Volunteer Work

"Did it make sense to run and stay in the race? Time will tell," he said.

He said he has no plans to make a push to restore his name, along the lines of what former New York governor Eliot Spitzer has embarked on. Reputation "is not something I'm focused on," he said. "The only relevance of it at all is my ability to help people. That's the only reason it matters. I'm not engaged in, or interested in, being in a PR campaign."

But he did not rule out a return to politics. He said it was too early to say what the future held -- though an Al Gore-style advocacy role is more likely than elected office, given the scandal. He thinks "every day" about what form his future role in activism or public life could take, but "right now, a lot of that is unanswerable."

"Sometimes you just keep your head down and work hard and see what happens," he said.

After a strong showing in the 2004 primaries and his ultimately unsuccessful campaign as John Kerry's running mate, Edwards left the Senate to prepare for a second presidential run, positioning himself as the more progressive alternative to Clinton despite a voting record that was decidedly centrist on many issues. But then Obama came along. Edwards placed second behind the relative newcomer in the Iowa caucuses, then dropped out of the race in late January. He endorsed Obama in May, putting himself in the mix for vice president or attorney general.

Then came confirmation of the affair. So total has his disappearance been that there has been little accounting of what he left behind. Many of his supporters have yet even to attempt to reckon with the meaning of his campaigns in light of last year's revelations.

Some Democrats still argue that he pushed Obama and Clinton to the left. But others say his outspoken progressive platform was flawed from the outset -- it was better, they say, to frame a progressive agenda in the way Obama did, with broad themes of societal uplift, instead of an explicit appeal on behalf of the poor. These critics say the sincerity of all of Edwards's rhetoric is in question now, potentially undermining future attempts by politicians to try to focus on poverty.

"The reaction going forward to a politician accepting the mantle of poverty the way Edwards did is that he would be dismissed as insincere," said Margy Waller, a policy adviser in the Clinton administration. "The risk always was that that would happen to Edwards -- not related to the way he treated his wife, but the way he treated the issue overall always seemed insincere. His whole history of working on the issue was fairly limited and always somewhat suspect."

One legacy still stands: a poverty think tank that he created in 2005 at the University in North Carolina. It is now led by law professor Gene Nichol, who puts on occasional events and oversees student fellowships. The center is funded by a $2 million pledge by a Chapel Hill couple who were strong Edwards supporters. But his name has all but disappeared from the center's Web site.

It bothers Nichol that Edwards's many skeptics have used his troubles to justify their cynicism. It is a sentiment shared by Edwards's former advisers, many of whom have found jobs in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill. "People say in effect, 'Well, John Edwards fell off a cliff so poverty obviously isn't a question for American politics,' " Nichol said. "How that can be? I don't understand."

Edwards rejected the notion that questions about his credibility would hurt future efforts to combat poverty. "Helping the poor was never about me, and never should have been and isn't today," he said. "Whether I did extraordinarily superhuman things or had frailties has nothing to do with people living in the dark every day of their lives."

Other Edwards initiatives have fallen by the wayside. One week before confirming the affair, he pulled the plug on College for Everyone, a program he started in 2005 at Greene Central High School in Snow Hill, N.C., which paid the first-year college tuition of any graduate who stayed out of trouble and worked 10 hours per week, at a total cost of about $300,000 per year. Edwards touted the program often on the campaign trail, calling it the first step toward a nationwide financial aid initiative.


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