Vice presidential candidate John Edwards (search), the trial attorney turned populist politician, started his law career representing corporate and banking clients at a Nashville firm co-founded by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander (search) and dominated by members of the GOP.

"I vaguely remember him being a Democrat," said Lew Connor, an ardent Republican who is supporting President Bush. "It was interesting because we were, of course, generally Republicans. It didn't fit the general mode."

Years passed before Edwards took on the cause of the little guy, which became part of the message that worked well as he sought the Democratic nomination for president and impressed John Kerry (search) enough to pick him as his running mate.

Right out of law school at the University of North Carolina, Edwards impressed people with his ability to charm juries and effortlessly juggle the demands of being a junior trial lawyer. He attracted friends and supporters from the start, making lasting connections in Nashville before returning to North Carolina, former co-workers said.

"He was kind of the perfect trial lawyer," said Bill Earthman, who worked with Edwards in the late 1970s in Nashville. "He enjoyed going to court. He didn't get nervous about it — and it's something that requires a pretty thick skin."

Dearborn & Ewing, which Edwards joined in 1978, was home to heavy hitters for the Republican Party. Alexander, a founding member, later became governor of Tennessee and is one of its U.S. senators.

"We were a lot more interested in his lawyering skills than his political persuasion," Connor said. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure he'd be an excellent lawyer."

Earthman, who also worked at Dearborn & Ewing, said he doesn't recall Edwards having much interest in politics.

"He never talked much about politics. I would say his interest in politics developed later on," Earthman said. "John is just a nice guy. He is just an average guy, unlike some other politicians who might be caught up in ego."

For three years, Edwards worked primarily on corporate disputes and represented well-heeled clients. He was part of a team that represented a company that made the brakes on the L&N Railroad train that derailed and exploded in Waverly, Tenn., in 1978, killing 16 people.

"I think he concluded he was on the wrong side of the bar," Connor said.

After moving back to North Carolina in 1981, Edwards began building a career that focused on fighting big corporations on behalf of average people, not those with insider connections or high incomes.

In the 1990s Edwards collected some $150 million in verdicts or settlements, including $25 million in 1997 for a 5-year-old girl whose intestines were damaged by a drain at a community wading pool. It remains the largest verdict in North Carolina history.