John Edwards may formally deny he is a candidate for president, but it's awfully hard to tell. Last year's Democratic vice presidential nominee pulled into Iowa -- whose caucuses gave Edwards his biggest victory -- Tuesday to talk about poverty and moral values. He began at a housing conference, met with Maytag workers and wrapped up the day at a Democratic fundraiser.
Along the way, he criticized President Bush for a "failure of leadership" in Iraq and a refusal to deal with a growing national health care problem. Edwards said he may not speak with the same voice as Democratic Chairman Howard Dean, under fire for sharp attacks on Republicans, but the former North Carolina senator said he shares Dean's goal of putting the Democrats "back in power."
Seven months after he and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) lost their bid for the White House, Edwards is emerging with undiminished ambition and a fresh cause. The campaign he publicly admits to waging is one against poverty. In a new round of speeches across the country, he calls poverty "one of the great moral issues in America today."
Edwards, who won a following with his two Americas (rich and poor) campaign speech, accepted a faculty job at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, designed as a platform on the issue. He signed a deal to put together a book on first homes and what they meant to the people who lived in them. And he has begun working with college students on more than 10 campuses to build anti-poverty activism.
Edwards intends to launch that mission this fall with a speaking tour that will include stops in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Madison, Wis.; Berkeley, Calif.; New York City; and New Haven, Conn. "I think young people will embrace a moral cause. I think many of them are cynical about politics and they want something to believe in," Edwards said Tuesday in an interview. "My hope is to create a movement."
Edwards, 52, also hopes to define himself after last year's bruising race as a Democrat who has strong convictions and, yes, a set of moral values that liberals and moderates could learn to love -- not least the southern voters Edwards would need to win the 2008 nomination and the White House.
In the meantime, Edwards has the luxury of time and wealth, even if he does not have the political stage or the policy portfolio he sought as Kerry's running mate. Dwelling in the land of policy debates, blue-ribbon commissions and Democratic gatherings, he is calculating how to make a difference, and how to make himself heard.
Faulted by his opponents for inexperience in foreign policy and national security after only one term in the Senate, Edwards faces the challenge of developing expertise while out of office. These days, he makes a point of mentioning a recent visit to London and a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Nor is Edwards shy about mentioning his position as co-chair, with former GOP vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp, of a Council on Foreign Relations task force on Russia. He salts his speeches with references to genocide in Sudan, imprisoned Christians in China and the Kremlin's prosecution of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
The focus on poverty began soon after the election. Unlike Kerry, who kept his Senate seat, Edwards was out of a job. In the first days after Bush's triumph, Elizabeth Edwards faced treatment for breast cancer. "We were terrified about Elizabeth," said Edwards, who threw himself into identifying the best doctors and treatment. Aides said the sense of purpose also kept him from dwelling on the political loss.
Later discussions with Elizabeth -- who successfully completed treatment last month -- and close friends led Edwards to concentrate on poverty and a host of interlocking issues. "We sat around and talked about what we were going to do," Edwards said. "We talked about a whole range of subjects. The subject of poverty came up -- I think I brought it up. They all said, 'You just lit up when you started talking about this. It's obviously something you're passionate about.' It just became very clear to me, almost instantly, that this is what I wanted to do."
Edwards took a two-year faculty position at the University of North Carolina, where he will lead the new nonpartisan Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity. In his speeches, he uses the vocabulary of morality and social responsibility to talk about the nation's persistent inability to narrow the gaps in income and opportunity.
In the process, he aims to signal that Republicans, and particularly the Christian right, do not have a monopoly on issues of faith or personal conviction.
"We believe in giving voice to those who have no voice. That's what the Democratic Party is supposed to be all about," Edwards told several hundred Democrats and labor activists in Chicago on Monday at a convention of Jesse L. Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition.
To an Iowa housing and homelessness group, he asked, "What does it say when we do nothing -- nothing but turn our backs -- for 45 [million] to 46 million people who have no health care coverage? These are not the signals . . . of what our collective moral values are."
Mindful that Bush won votes from people who believed they knew where he stood, and that Kerry was portrayed as an uncertain steward, Edwards said in the interview that national Democratic leaders must prove they have "a core set of beliefs" that they are "willing to fight for, whether they're popular or not."
Born and raised a Southern Baptist who drifted away from church and then returned to it, Edwards said faith is fine in political discourse if it is authentic: "It is not a good idea to treat faith as a strategy. Invoking the name of God 50 times in a political speech is a mistake."
But that does not mean leaving God out of political speeches. "You know, the Lord gave us minds to think," Edwards said in Chicago, "but He also gave us hearts to inspire us."