As Sen. John F. Kerry's running mate, Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) has been dispatched in recent weeks to destinations that include the Appalachian region of Ohio, a depressed mill town in central Maine and the struggling steel town of Weirton, W.Va.

The former trial lawyer is appearing often in such pockets of swing states. Having built a spectacularly successful law career partly on his ability to appeal to the blue-collar workers he grew up around in rural North Carolina, he might very well make the case for Kerry more forcefully in these places than the nominee himself.

"We know what needs to be done, not just in Iraq," Edwards told about 500 engrossed senior citizens and students gathered in a cinderblock community center last week in Weirton. "We also know what needs to be done whether it's jobs, trade, health care -- all the problems that have occurred over the last four years. In order to do it, John Kerry needs to be in the White House, and that's why we need your help."

Playing chief advocate for his former Democratic presidential rival is hardly the first role in which Edwards's skills as a trial lawyer have served him well in politics.

For much of his legal career, Edwards specialized in personal injury and medical malpractice cases. Since his entrance into politics, Republicans have repeatedly tried to use that against him. But a review of his record makes it clear that his background has largely been an asset in his rapid rise from a political neophyte to the Democrat who will make the most important appearance of his career when he debates Vice President Cheney tonight.

Ever since Edwards won his 1998 Senate race -- his first run for political office -- he has been bolstered at key moments by a web of connections drawn from his two decades in the courtroom and the drive, discipline and rhetorical skills he honed there.

"As a lawyer, he understood how to empathize with his clients and get that message out to the common people on the jury," said Lewis "Mike" S. Eidson, a Miami lawyer who was drawn to Edwards during his Senate race and helped raise money for his presidential bid. "As a politician I think he's a natural, but he developed those skills as a trial lawyer, sometimes communicating with people under a great deal of stress."

On the campaign trail, President Bush suggests that Kerry's selection of Edwards showed that he cares more about lawyers than about the doctors and patients who are affected by escalating awards in medical malpractice lawsuits. "My opponent made his choice when he put a trial lawyer on the ticket," Bush chided during a recent stop in Edwards's home state of North Carolina.

Republicans also tried, with limited success, to make an issue of Edwards's career during his 1998 race. After scouring his caseload, however, operatives working for incumbent Lauch Faircloth came away frustrated because Edwards's clients were almost universally sympathetic figures. Among those he represented was a girl who was severely injured at age 5 after sitting on a defective wading-pool drain.

Edwards won at least $205 million for his clients in settlements and jury awards, according to Lawyer's Weekly. He had at least 48 verdicts or settlements that exceeded $1 million.

Edwards's work has been harshly criticized by some North Carolina doctors, who say large payouts are making it increasingly difficult for them to practice.

"I'm not sure people have the right to become multimillionaires on the backs of other people's misfortunes," said John W. Schmitt, who gave up his obstetrics and gynecology practice in Raleigh in 2002 to join the faculty of the University of Virginia after his premiums jumped. Schmitt said he is concerned that Edwards, as vice president, would be beholden to the interests of trial lawyers. "You are good to the girl who brought you to the dance, and they've been behind a lot of his activities."

Edwards's fees allowed him to pay for his 1998 campaign largely out of his own pocket. He spent $6.15 million of his own money and got nearly half of the $2.2 million he raised from fellow lawyers.

On the campaign trail, Edwards argued that his work in Washington would be an extension of his advocacy in the courtroom. He vowed to be "the people's senator."

Just weeks after taking office, Edwards found his legal skills in demand. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, chose him as one of three Democrats to oversee depositions in President Bill Clinton's impeachment trial -- including that of Monica S. Lewinsky.

Edwards's standing rose as a result of the arguments he made in favor of Clinton's acquittal in a closed-door session with colleagues. Speaking without notes, Edwards acknowledged that Clinton had shown a "breathtaking" disrespect for the presidency but suggested that a dispassionate look at the evidence did not justify removing him from office.

In legislation, Edwards's voice was most prominent on issues in which his legal experience provided credibility. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) turned to him for help in defending the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill during floor debate. Edwards also joined McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in pushing for a patients' bill of rights, which would allow consumers to sue their HMOs.

Toward the end of 2001, as he started to consider running for president, Edwards set up a political action committee, the New American Optimists, to become better known nationally.

Although Edwards focused his trial work almost exclusively in North Carolina, he had developed a national reputation and web of professional connections through the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. In 1990, at 37, he also had been named to the Inner Circle of Advocates, a national group of 100 trial lawyers. Friendships from those organizations provided access to plenty of deep pockets.

Soft Money

In 2002, Edwards's PAC received "soft money" contributions of $25,000 or more from 38 lawyers or law firms, according to disclosure reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service. A dozen of those contributions were of $100,000 or more.

In all, the PAC took in $4.6 million in soft money in 2002, most coming from those with ties to the legal profession.

"I think it's safe to say that if John didn't have those connections, it would have been hard to get the organization off the ground," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic operative who ran Edwards's PAC in 2002. "It's a community that respects it when one of its own is doing something. That allowed him to kick open a lot of doors."

Edwards's pattern of solicitations stood in contrast with those of his Democratic rivals. Kerry was operating a PAC during 2002 as well. His Citizen Soldier Fund limited solicitations to $10,000 or less, though it abandoned that practice late in the year.

The large-dollar contributions came at a key time for Edwards, as he was jostling with a crowded field of more experienced Democrats. The money allowed him to travel to states with early primaries and caucuses and to start making a name for himself among party activists. In the process, Edwards's PAC steered hundreds of thousands of dollars to Democratic Party committees and candidates in key states, including $250,000 to Iowa party committees.

Edwards was also courting contacts in those states to help build political operations. In Iowa, he turned to trial lawyers Roxanne Conlin and Rob Tully to lead his campaign and help him navigate the byzantine politics of the Iowa caucuses. Both had served as chairmen of the Iowa Democratic Party and had run for office in the state -- Conlin for governor and Tully for Congress.

"Any candidate needs people on the ground who know people and know how the process works, and Rob and I do," Conlin said.

Politically connected lawyers showed up in other key slots in Edwards's presidential operation as it got off the ground. South Carolina, the only primary state that Edwards won, was run for Edwards by John C. Moylan III, a trial lawyer whose specialties include voting rights litigation.

Ed Turlington, the general chairman of Edwards's campaign, got to know Edwards in the early 1990s, when they worked in the same Raleigh law firm before Edwards started his own practice in 1993. Turlington, a top operative in former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, provided other connections, including an introduction to the lawyer who hosted the first of dozens of "house parties" Edwards attended in New Hampshire to get to know activists in the first primary state.

Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer and former president of the American Trial Lawyers Association, played a critical role in helping Edwards raise money once his presidential bid became official in January 2003. With individual contributions now limited to $2,000, lawyers became far more valuable as ambassadors to their communities than as donors. At the end of March, Edwards's campaign announced that it had raised $7.4 million, eclipsing all of his rivals, including Kerry.

As the nominating contests neared, Edwards's stock as a candidate started rising more on the basis of his message of middle-class empowerment and his sunny delivery.

The Advocate

During his days as a lawyer, Edwards's closing arguments were considered legendary. Fellow attorneys would often sit in and marvel at his ability to connect with juries. Among his assets was an ability to break down complicated subject matter -- medical records, product failures and the like -- and make it easy for lay people to understand. The same skills appeared to benefit Edwards greatly during his first forays to Iowa and New Hampshire, where politics is practiced at first in living rooms and union halls.

"John went into those early states with a proven ability to communicate with people in small settings," Turlington said.

Edwards's advocacy skills and professional connections also appeared to serve him well after he ended his presidential bid in March and started angling to become Kerry's running mate.

Shortly after dropping out, Edwards convened a meeting of his major fundraisers in Washington. Kerry wound up attending, and Edwards directed his loyalists, many of them trial lawyers, to redirect their efforts to helping him. Edwards's fundraisers pulled together events for Kerry in Ohio, Texas and Florida in the weeks to follow.

Edwards's aides, however, believe that what helped most in getting Kerry's nod were appearances Edwards made in battleground states and on television talk shows in the weeks after he ended his bid. There, Edwards demonstrated that he could be as vigorous an advocate for Kerry's candidacy as he was for his own.

As Kerry's running mate, Edwards is still asked about his professional background -- and he offers much the same response he did during his own bid.

"I am proud of the fact that I have stood with children and these families having the courage to take on big corporations and insurance companies," he said during a recent stop in Manchester, N.H. "They are the kind of people I will fight for when I'm vice president of the United States."

Staff writer Matthew Mosk, traveling with Edwards, contributed to this report.

Sen. John Edwards's skill in court carried over to politics. Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) shakes supporters' hands after arriving in Cleveland. The only vice presidential debate between Edwards and Vice President Cheney will be held tonight at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.