WASHINGTON – Democrat John Edwards (search) lost the election for the vice presidency this week and will lose his Senate seat in January. But he's hardly going away. He's positioned himself for a full-out presidential run in 2008, a campaign that in a way he's already begun.
For now, though, politics is on hold. His wife, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with breast cancer this week just after Democrat John Kerry (search) and running mate Edwards conceded the race to President Bush.
"Together, our family will beat this," Edwards said on Thursday in a statement that made clear her treatment would be the focus of his immediate future.
Longer range, the North Carolina senator with the good looks, Southern charm, rags-to-riches biography and "tomorrow can be better than today" pitch is in the top rank of candidates expected to compete for the White House in four years.
That's despite his liabilities: He's leaving the Senate after a single term; he has little foreign policy experience; he couldn't deliver his own state or any other in the South for Kerry, despite boasting that "I will beat George Bush in my backyard." But he now has the experience and public exposure of a national campaign.
While Edwards has not announced his intentions, he never has been shy about his presidential aspirations. He introduced Kerry on Wednesday with a speech that could be considered the first of the 2008 contest.
"This campaign may end today, but the battle for you and the hardworking Americans who built this country rages on," Edwards said. "At the end of our heartache today resides an eternal hope for the country we're going to fight for and the country we're going to build together."
Democrats say they expect Edwards to be extremely active in the party, speaking at events, raising money and endearing himself to the rank and file. Campaigning for the nomination years early, in effect.
Another potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) of New York, has a large following and plenty of name recognition, too. And, unlike Edwards, the former first lady also has a job that will keep her in the spotlight.
Edwards will be unemployed in January when he leaves the Senate after just six years and a swift rise in politics. He chose not to run for re-election at the same time he was running for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination as a long-shot candidate.
Barely a blip in primary polls, Edwards fought to counter a perception that he was little more than a pretty face and a gifted speaker. Then he wound up in second place in Iowa.
Eventually, he lost to Kerry but he won the respect of party officials - and the Massachusetts senator - with his ability to raise money and connect with voters with a message of optimism about achieving the American dream.
After the primary season, Edwards campaigned for the vice presidential nomination by traveling the country talking up Kerry and raising money. Kerry asked his Senate colleague to join the ticket, and he campaigned hard to the end.
His advisers and friends say he hasn't spoken to them about his next political move - or his plans in the meantime other than to help his wife heal. They say he was focused on helping Kerry win the White House and didn't dwell on the "what if" during the campaign.
For now, Edwards will see out his Senate term and commute between homes in Washington and Raleigh, N.C. No one expects him to return to the courtroom and his previous profession as a trial lawyer.
Those who know him believe Edwards will become involved with a couple of "worthy causes."
"He'll find some things to make his own and throw himself into to make America a better place," former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt said. "He's positioned beautifully for the future. He will have the time and all the opportunity. He will have the forum and he can pick his issues."
And, he can afford to focus entirely on 2008.
A multimillionaire who amassed a fortune as a trial lawyer, Edwards doesn't need a job to pay the bills.
Some Democrats say they believe the party will embrace Southerner Edwards as it did Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, considering Tuesday's losses in the White House and in Congress. The only Democrats in recent years to be president were small-town Southerners.