Back in 2002 I went over to see John and Elizabeth Edwards at their house in Washington. We had lunch, salads for us all, the pundit sizing up the prodigy with the usual Beltway questions about this or that, when suddenly Edwards set the agenda. He talked passionately about racial injustice.

I won't go into the particulars of that conversation -- it doesn't matter anyway -- but suffice it to say that I found it an unexpected turn of events. Edwards was even then known for rhetoric that was to become his stock campaign speech about "two Americas": "We're going to build an America where we say no to kids going to bed hungry, no to kids who don't have the clothes to keep them warm, and no forever to any American working full time and living in poverty." This is the rhetoric that has earned him the label "populist."

It is also the rhetoric that comes right out of his background as the son of a textile worker -- working class, blue-collar, always an accident away from financial disaster. Edwards's story is by now well known: the first in his family to go to college, the trial lawyer who sued the pants off rich corporations and lousy doctors, making them pay for maiming people in the grand cause of profit.

But over lunch in his house, little of that came out. Instead, it was civil rights, race and the ideology of some of George Bush's judicial appointments. Edwards spoke with a passion you don't often hear in Washington anymore, referring to his boyhood in the South and the degradation and humiliation of African Americans that he had witnessed -- a Southerner out to make amends. Either he felt it keenly or he was putting on one hell of an act.

Edwards is often likened to Bill Clinton, and the comparison is in some ways apt. They are both political wunderkinds who felt no obligation to punch the conventional ticket -- city council, state legislature, etc. -- and instead decided to start where other men are glad to finish. They both have tongues that are hard-wired to their brains, punctuating their thoughts with verbal commas and periods and not with the grunts and hmmms of most politicians. Both Edwards and Clinton studied their betters -- and bested them.

There is yet another way in which Edwards is like Clinton -- the quality, if that's the right word, of his wife. I will never forget sitting at a lunch counter in New Hampshire with Bill and Hillary Clinton as they answered questions from a waitress about various programs for single mothers. If Bill Clinton paused while putting some food in his mouth, Hillary Clinton took over. It may not be true that she knew as much as Bill. She probably knew more.

It was something similar at lunch with John and Elizabeth Edwards. That day, it was clear that if John Edwards needed to pause in the middle of a sentence, his wife could finish it, maybe adding a detail or two that he forgot. She, too, is a lawyer. Together, they are a firm.

The Edwards firm is now in competition with the Clinton one. If, as every Democrat in New York believes, Bill and Hillary have their eyes on a Clinton Restoration (Hillary as president in 2008 or 2012, depending) they now have to contend with the Edwardses. The brand new vice presidential nominee is just 51. Nothing is certain in politics, but an Edwards-Clinton showdown seems destined.

The vice presidency is an American anomaly. It's a nothing position that has long been ridiculed but today helps satisfy the media's craving for national political figures. Only two instantly satisfy that need -- the president and the vice president. The celebrity of the vice president is a modern phenomenon. By November John Edwards will be truly famous. Win or lose, he is certain to win.

By then, too, we will know a bit more about him. That's good. He has come very far very fast -- maybe too fast. His stump speech, a thing of beauty, is after all just a speech, and he has a lot to learn. In a Sept. 11 world, I'd like more experience in foreign affairs, but then Clinton had none and Bush had none and neither did Reagan -- the usual case for new presidents because most of them were governors.

Yet what can't be measured, what is never mentioned in a resume, is that quality I found in Edwards at lunch that day -- a fierce passion for social justice. It's something that does not come with experience but out of experience. In that sense, Edwards is ready.

cohenr@washpost.com