Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) yesterday declared his intention to seek the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, casting himself as a candidate with the ideas and vision to lead his party back to power and declaring that he hopes to become "a champion for regular people."

Edwards, a first-term senator who made millions as a trial lawyer before entering politics, joined a presidential race that, with Al Gore's decision not to run, begins with no clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination and with President Bush holding a strong advantage over all his potential challengers. But Edwards said he would match up well against the president as his party's nominee.

"If I am the nominee for the Democrats in 2004, I will present a very stark contrast to President Bush and a very different option for the American people," Edwards said in a telephone interview from Raleigh, N.C. "I run for president to be a champion of regular people. . . . This president has an administration that is run largely by insiders and, too often, for insiders."

Edwards's lack of experience, particularly in foreign policy, represents a potentially significant obstacle to his presidential aspirations, but he offers the Democrats a fresh face and demonstrated political skills as they seek to rebuild from their disappointment at losing the White House in 2000 and their demoralization after Republicans recaptured control of the Senate and expanded their House majority in the 2002 midterm elections.

By filing papers yesterday to form a presidential committee, Edwards became the third Democrat to signal his intention to run in 2004. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) earlier announced their plans to seek the Democratic nomination, with others expected to join the race soon.

Next up is likely to be outgoing House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt (Mo.), who is expected to set up a committee this weekend. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, and outgoing Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) are close to announcing their decisions, according to advisers. Civil rights activist Al Sharpton may also seek the Democratic nomination.

Most of the Democrats will schedule formal announcements later in the year, but they need to set up committees to raise money. They view the first three months of the year as an early opportunity to demonstrate their fundraising strength to party insiders and activists. With the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary barely a year away, the candidates are also anxious to begin building organizations and start courting activists as quickly as possible.

Edwards, who has scheduled early fundraising trips to the South and the West Coast, announced his intention to run during a morning interview on NBC's "Today" show and followed that up with a round of interviews with state and national news organizations, during which he defended his lack of experience, particularly in foreign policy.

"What people want in their leader and their president and their commander in chief is a clear idea of what America's role in the world is; good sound judgment; strength of character and conviction," he said. "I believe I have those qualities, and people will see those qualities as they come to know me."

He also said he believes his background as a trial lawyer will prove to be a plus with voters, despite Republicans' belief that such a credential represents a clear handicap. "I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, usually big insurance companies," he said on NBC. "And my job was to give them a fair shake, to give them a fair chance."

Edwards said he hopes the nomination battle will test the ideas and visions of the candidates, saying Democrats should not just criticize but must "lay claim to an alternative vision" to unseat Bush.

In the past few months, Edwards has given a series of speeches on national and homeland security, education and the economy. He supported the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein but said yesterday that he has not decided yet whether Iraq is in "material breach" of the newest United Nations resolution, as the administration has declared.

On domestic issues, he has called for delaying future installments of Bush's tax cut, instead favoring smaller cuts targeted at middle-class taxpayers. He has also urged Democrats to restrain their spending impulses, arguing that it is important to restore fiscal discipline to the federal budget, although he has not yet offered a detailed fiscal plan.

Edwards is the lone southerner in the Democratic field of prospective candidates, which his advisers believe will be an important attribute as voters begin to weigh their choices. The last two Democrats elected to the presidency, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both came from the South.

"Karl Rove's worst nightmare is a centrist southern Democrat who can turn some of Bush's red states blue," said a Democratic strategist who has offered advice to Edwards and other Democratic candidates, referring to the 2000 election maps that showed states won by Bush in red, including the entire South.

A strategist for a rival Democrat said Edwards's great strength and biggest weakness is his appeal as a new face. "His newness is everything," the strategist said. "It's his appeal, and I don't discount it, but in the post-9/11 world, it's a definite disadvantage."

Edwards's Senate term will expire in 2004, but he declined to say yesterday whether he will run for reelection. He faces a difficult political environment back home, with the 2002 Senate victory of Republican Elizabeth Dole showing a rapidly expanding GOP electorate in that state. "Edwards is facing a significantly dicey situation in his home state," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina,

Edwards was born in South Carolina but grew up in Robbins, N.C., where his father worked in a textile mill. After becoming one of the state's most successful trial lawyers, he entered politics and won his Senate seat in 1998 by defeating incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth. In 2000, he was on Gore's short list for a running mate.

In 1996, Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, lost their 16-year-old son in an automobile accident. The couple has a college-age daughter and two young children who were born after their son's death.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) joins a race against a popular GOP incumbent, with no clear Democratic front-runner.