Tackling the first task to getting elected president, Sen. John Edwards announced Thursday he would set up an exploratory committee in pursuit of the Democratic nomination for 2004.

"I run for president to be champion -- to be a champion for the same people I fought for all my life: regular folks," Edwards said in a press conference held outside his Raleigh, N.C., home.

"I think these people are entitled to a champion in the White House, somebody who goes to work every day seeing things through their eyes and who provides real ideas about how to make their lives better -- not somebody who's thinking about insiders or looking out for insiders," he said in a not too subtle jab at President Bush.

Edwards, a multimillionaire trial lawyer and first-term senator, joins Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in a contest which has become more spirited in the wake of former Vice President Al Gore's decision not to run.

Edwards has been verbalizing his interest in a run for the presidency over the last few weeks, and has given several addresses on major policy issues, most recently in mid-December in which he attacked Bush's tax-cut policy and said the nation needed a new intelligence agency.

On Wednesday, Edwards revealed his plans to some 200 friends and supporters invited to his home to celebrate the new year. Guests at the party said Edwards indicated his campaign would focus on civil rights issues.

Edwards said Thursday that he wants tax cuts to benefit low- and middle-income workers and a new security alert system for individuals in the vicinity of a terrorist attack.

"There are a lot of folks in this country [who] have no idea what they're supposed to do if an attack occurs. They don't know anymore about it than they knew on 9/11. Well, I've laid out a series of ideas about how to make that better, how to make sure we get a warning to them and make sure that there's a coordinated response when an attack occurs," he said, giving the example of a telephone warning that would be activated if an attack occurs in the middle of the night.

Edwards said he will offer a dramatic alternative to Bush's White House as somebody who comes from a humble background, whose father worked in a North Carolina textile mill and who understands the needs of ordinary people.

"My vision for America will be rooted and my perspective and championing the cause of regular people -- not people who have lobbyists in Washington, not people -- these are not people who are a member of interest groups," he said. "That's an alternative to this president who I'm afraid too often has an administration that's run largely by insiders and too often for insiders."

Edwards was born in South Carolina and spent his teenage years in Robbins, N.C. A successful trial lawyer, he started off defending record companies accused of infringing on Elvis Presley copyrights, then moved to big-ticket personal injury cases, winning verdicts as high as $152 million and amassing a personal fortune of $14 million.

He refused political action committee cash, instead spending $3 million of his own money on his 1998 campaign to represent North Carolina in the Senate. Edwards said in his news conference that he will raise money, not spend his own to make this race.

During his time in the Senate, Edwards has served on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees and won more than $250 million in disaster relief for his state after Hurricane Floyd.

Despite pressures from his own textile-heavy state, Edwards voted for permanent normalized trade relations with China.

Edwards said he doesn't think his relatively short time in Washington will be a disadvantage in a candidacy and could actually prove beneficial because he feels closer to the needs of ordinary citizens like those in his home state.

"I would say that I have exactly the kind of experience we need in the White House: somebody who's close to regular people; somebody who understands their problems; somebody who has ideas, real ideas, specific ideas ... somebody who has good, solid judgment, which I believe I have, grounded in North Carolina values and beliefs; somebody who has strength of character, strength of conviction; and somebody who can earn the trust of people," he said.

The 49-year-old senator said he will spend the next couple of days talking publicly about his political plans. He also said he will be talking to the people of North Carolina about why he's pursuing the presidency and asking for their ideas on top priorities that should be mentioned in a national race. State polls have suggested the public is lukewarm about Edwards' presidential ambitions.

Already, analysts have started weighing Edwards' qualifications to be president.

"He is defined right now as a little bit of beefcake and a lot of trial lawyer," said GOP strategist Cheri Jacobus.

Edwards did not say if he'll run for the Senate in 2004 if his presidential candidacy fails.

Edwards has spent months making the rounds at Democratic functions in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere.

Other Democrats close to announcing their decisions on a White House run are Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt and Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman. Sen. Bob Graham of Florida has indicated he will decide this month whether to run.

Fox News' James Rosen and The Associated Press contributed to this report.