Edwin W. Edwards, Louisiana's high-stakes governor, won the biggest purse of his life yesterday -- an acquittal from the federal jury in New Orleans in his fraud and racketeering retrial.

The working-class jury of eight men and four women heard no testimony from the defense and deliberated 12 hours before reaching a unanimous verdict of not guilty.

The courtroom, filled with relatives of Edwards and four co-defendants, who also were acquitted, erupted in whoops and cheers when the first verdict was read. Edwards hugged his wife, Elaine, thanked Judge Marcel Livaudais and the jury, and marched triumphantly from the courtroom that had dominated his life for seven months.

"I want to stand here and reflect for a few moments about this," said a beaming Edwards, as he reached the steps of the federal building. "I want to reflect on the fact that I am in America, that I am free."

The verdict came 20 months after Edwards, a Democrat, was indicted on charges that he had conspired to make illegal profits through the purchase and handling of hospital and nursing home certificates before and after he entered his third term as governor. The first trial -- billed in New Orleans as "The Trial of the Century" -- began last September and ended eight days before Christmas without a verdict; 11 jurors voted to acquit Edwards then, but the 12th juror, who believed Edwards guilty, could not be persuaded to change his mind.

U.S. Attorney John Volz, who made the decision to try Edwards and four co-defendants again, was visibly shaken after the not guilty verdict was reached yesterday afternoon. He had devoted two years of his career and several million dollars of public funds trying to convict Edwards, his longtime antagonist.

"We have nothing to be ashamed of," Volz said yesterday afternoon. "We did the right thing for the right reasons."

Edwards maintained from the start of his legal troubles that he was the victim of a political vendetta -- that Volz, a Republican, was the front man in a partisan effort to embarrass him. "John Volz started this thing . . . with a political mission," Edwards said after he emerged victorious. "It shows you how far he was willing to go with his unbridled use of his political power. He told the jury to send a message to the state of Louisiana and, brother, they did."

With the shadow of guilt removed, Edwards can concentrate on the affairs of his state, which is in perhaps its worst shape since the 1930s. Unemployment has reached 13.5 percent and the state budget, reliant on oil and gas royalties for about 23 percent of its funds, is about $650 million to $800 million in the red.

For much of the last year, Edwards tried to run the state from a telephone booth outside the courtroom. Now he can operate from the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge. His task will not be easy. The state legislature opened its 1986 session three weeks ago determined to cut several social programs to reduce the deficit, a strategy that Edwards opposes.

Last December, on the day the first trial ended in a mistrial, Edwards revealed that he would try to restore the state to good health through a series of innovative proposals. They turned out to be a state lottery and 13 casinos in New Orleans. Both proposals got lukewarm receptions from the legislature, but there was a feeling yesterday that the governor's acquittal might change things.

"We've got some momentum now, the shadow is gone," said one of Edwards' lobbyists. "We're going back to Baton Rouge ready to win another one."

The verdict yesterday came as little surprise. Since the trial began last fall, people in New Orleans, whether they supported Edwards or opposed him, generally thought that he was too smart to get convicted. "This was one case where Johnny Volz bit off a little more than he could chew," said Arthur (Buddy) Lemann, one of dozens of New Orleans lawyers who followed the case. "The prosecution just didn't have the goods."

Edwards, who served two terms as governor beginning in 1971, was charged with conspiring to make millions of dollars in a hospital scheme that began while he was out of office in the early 1980s and continued after he returned for a third term in 1983. The indictment alleged that Edwards and the co-defendants -- Ronnie Falgout, James Wyllie, Gus Mijalis and Marion Edwards, the governor's brother -- made $10 million in profits by acquiring hospital and nursing home certificates through bribery and fraud.

Edwards, who made $2 million in the enterprise, never denied that he made the money, but insisted that it was all legal. So confident was he during the retrial that he persuaded his lawyers and the other co-defendants to waive their presentation and send the case to the jury after Volz had finished with prosecution witnesses.