The stop was not on the official campaign itinerary. But as John Edwards's motorcade rolled by a lighted-up football stadium here on drizzly recent evening, he called an audible.

Pulling up to a service gate, the convoy stopped, and Edwards jumped out in front of dozens of curious onlookers, walked briskly into the stadium and took a microphone.

"When I heard about this event going on, I just had to come out here," he told thousands of onlookers who had come to watch a marching-band competition between historically black colleges and now suddenly were in the middle of a political rally.

The Democratic vice presidential nominee kept his remarks brief; it was raining, and a band was waiting. Edwards pumped his fist and then ran toward the bleachers, where he jogged down the sideline, slapping hands with the crowd.

Then he left. Following his beefy Secret Service men like lead blockers, Edwards hustled back to his black sport-utility vehicle, which zoomed past a column of gold-and-maroon-costumed drummers and trumpeters.

Why Edwards "had to come out here" was left unexplained. He did not watch even a minute of the performances. But the symbolism was clear: The stop was a quick and easy way to get face time with a large number of African Americans in his home state, where his campaign faces an uphill climb.

Beginning in the primaries and now as John F. Kerry's running mate, Edwards has preached a theme that the Bush administration's policies have created "two Americas" -- one for the affluent and "one for everybody else."

On a week-long, nine-state swing, Edwards met crowds in regions diverse geographically but united in their concerns over a shrinking job pool for factory workers, rising costs of health care and of the war in Iraq. But if Edwards was addressing folks who all felt left out of the policymaking of the Bush White House, his campaign, in an unspoken way, revealed another "two Americas" -- the division by race.

Town hall meetings and rallies in places such as Roanoke, La Crosse, Wis., and Warren, Ohio, drew largely white crowds. To get to black audiences, Edwards seemed almost to go out of his way: stopping unexpectedly at the band competition or, the next morning, attending services at the University Park Baptist Church in Charlotte.

Race has not been a priority issue in the national debate in an era when national security gets more attention. As Edwards campaigns, race comes up almost tangentially -- in the way questions are asked by white and black audiences, or in whispered asides.

"See, he's just trying to show that he went to a black church," Toni Paul, 35, a nurse, told her three children as Edwards shook hands outside a Charlotte church. Asked about her comments by a reporter, Paul, who is black, said she was "unimpressed" that Edwards had stopped by "because I want to see what he will actually do for us, what he will do for the African American community in Charlotte."

Paul explained that she was concerned about drug addiction in the inner city. "There's not enough done to get rid of it," she said.

At a town hall meeting in Hough, a blighted inner-city neighborhood in Cleveland, Edwards tailored his stump speech in front of a predominantly black audience. He began by noting his and Kerry's pro-affirmative-action stance, his belief that young people who commit crimes should be rehabilitated and not locked up, and his disgust over predatory lending. These are themes he rarely mentions in front of white crowds.

"When we do things to help African Americans, they are not just African American issues; it's good for America," Edwards told the Hough audience.

But the crowd pressed him: Five or six people asked what his administration would do to help felons reassimilate after their release from prison. Cleo Busby, who works to create affordable housing in Cleveland, demanded that Edwards promise to make that a campaign issue.

"The answer is yes, I will commit to doing it and to make it a campaign issue," Edwards said. "We will fight for it." But two hours later, at a speech before a mostly white crowd in Warren, Edwards did not mention affordable housing, affirmative action or predatory lending.

He did mention race -- albeit briefly -- in a speech along the Mississippi River in La Crosse, Wis., where a largely white crowd turned out. "Some people ask me where is the right place to talk about race in America," he said. "I have an answer: everywhere." Issues people care about are "not an Asian issue, not a Hispanic issue, not an Iraqi issue: They are American issues."

Edwards has often been compared to Bill Clinton: raised by working-class families in the racially sensitive South and eloquent speakers who are deft in their ability to empathize with both blacks and whites. Although Clinton came to office in an age of racial battles over Rodney King and O.J. Simpson and Edwards campaigns in an age when race is trumped by nationality in a time of war, Lawanna Holmes believes Edwards understands the nuances of how race matters today.

"He's from the South, and anyone from the South thinks about issues in that light," said Holmes, 43, a black homemaker from Rochester, Minn., who attended the La Crosse event.

Holmes and her husband, Curt Schmelling, 39, a computer programmer who is white, said they were disappointed not to see more minority faces in the La Crosse crowd. But they reasoned that the increasing numbers of Hispanics and Somalis who had immigrated to the region were not immersed enough in the political system to know the event was going on -- or, if they were aware, could not find time to attend. "I do find it painful," Holmes said. "It's too bad you don't see more people of color at events of this sort."

-- David Nakamura

Sen. John Edwards holds a child as he greets supporters after attending church services Sunday in Charlotte.