CHARLES CITY, Iowa – Jennifer Boggs' eyes are red with tears as she begs Sen. John Edwards (search) to help her teenage son. The North Carolina lawmaker hugs her around the neck and whispers, "I'm here to help."
"This is exactly why I'm running for president of the United States," Edwards says as Democratic activists file out of his town hall meeting. "I want to do something about mental health care for your son, for everybody's son."
It was the kind of moment Edwards' advisers have been promising since the freshman lawmaker began his longshot bid for the presidency. Though one of the most inexperience candidates in the nine-person Democratic field, Edwards comes equipped with some of the tools that vaulted Bill Clinton (search) to the presidency - Southern charm, an up-from-the-bootstraps biography, good looks and ability to convince voters that he feels their pain.
But his candidacy has not caught on. Even Boggs said Edwards had earned her gratitude but perhaps not her vote. "I'm still shopping around for the right candidate," she said, wiping a tear from her eye as Edwards walked out the door.
His campaign is at a do-or-die stage as he tries to improve his standing. This is when the millionaire trial lawyer, second among the field's fund-raisers, must translate his advantages into support.
"The next two or three months are critical," Edwards said aboard his huge campaign bus that is carrying his wife and two kids through Iowa and New Hampshire the next two weeks.
This month he began airing about $500,000 worth of ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, the states where Democrats will make their first choices early next year. The ads, scheduled to run for about four weeks, focus on his working-class upbringing, his policies to help the middle class and his argument that President Bush favors wealth over hard work.
When the ads run their course, another round is likely to follow.
"I want to make sure the voters know me, where I'm from and what my vision is," Edwards said. "For the first time, I'm communicating with voters in Iowa and New Hampshire."
Edwards barely registers in national and state polls, and suffers from a perception among some Democrats that he offers nothing more than a slick presentation.
He is combating the criticism with a set of policy initiatives that may be the most creative and detailed of the field. Edwards wants to offer free tuition to freshman college students willing to work 10 hours a week. Parents would be required to insure their children under a health care plan that offered them tax incentives.
Both initiatives trace Clinton's effort to appeal to the Democrats' middle-class roots by offering new government programs while assuring swing voters that accountability comes with the spending.
Still, the campaign is driven as much by Edwards' personality as his policies. That is why his schedule is loaded with town hall meetings that put him in close contact with voters. It may also be why his bus tours include his wife, Elizabeth, and two of their children - Emma Claire, 5, and Jack, 3.
Emma Claire interrupted her father's speech Thursday by pulling free of her mother's arms and tapping her father on the hip. Edwards tousled her hair as he spoke to 45 people at an Elks Club in Iowa Falls.
A few minutes later, Emma Claire tiptoed to her father again. "Let Daddy talk, sweetie," he said as the audience cooed.
She paid no heed, bolting from her father and walking around the room - a frustrated Mrs. Edwards giving silent chase.
Edwards said he brought his children on the tour because he misses them. He said there is no political motive, though his staff clearly sees a benefit to having the kids in tow. The children were summoned to their father's side during a local television interview and were asked to wave out a bus window at cameramen as the Edwards' "Real Solutions Express (search)" left another Iowa town.
Mrs. Edwards, still learning the political ropes, interrupted her husband's speech here to joke about the chocolate stains the children left on his shirt. The line drew laughs from the crowd, but Mrs. Edwards wasn't sure if she overstepped.
"Was that OK?" she asked an aide, who assured her it was.
The fall buildup includes Edwards' formal announcement in mid-September. He also is expected to soon announce his intentions for his Senate seat, which is up for election in 2004.
Party leaders in North Carolina are pressing him to make way for a Democrat to seek his seat. Edwards wouldn't tip his hand Thursday, but he sounds and acts like a man willing to let another Democrat try for the Senate as he shoots for the presidency.
"I'm in this for the long haul," he said.