Former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards on Thursday announced his bid for the presidency in the 2008 election, calling on Americans who want a change in direction to support his candidacy.

"If we want to change this country, if we want to move America the way it needs to move, we're going to have to do it," Edwards told reporters gathered in a Hurricane Katrina victim's backyard in New Orleans' 9th Ward, where he staged the kickoff for his campaign.

"We want people in this campaign to actually take action now, not later, not after the next election," Edwards said. "Instead of staying home and complaining, we're asking Americans to help. .... Most of the good that has been done in New Orleans has been done by faith-based groups, charitable groups and volunteers."

Clad in blue jeans and an open-necked shirt with his sleeves rolled up, Edwards said his would be a grassroots campaign that would be led by the needs of the American people while also shining a light on international issues. He said Americans needs to re-establish U.S. prominence in the international arena.

"It is a mistake for America to escalate its role in Iraq," Edwards said, adding that a surge in U.S. troops there would send the wrong message to the Iraqis. In a question and answer session with reporters afterward, Edwards called his 2003 vote to authorize the Iraq war a mistake and said if he were president he would immediately withdraw 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.

"The biggest responsibility of the next president of the United States is to re-establish America's leadership role in the world, starting with Iraq," Edwards said.

"We need to make it clear that we intend to leave Iraq and turn over the responsibility of Iraq to the Iraqi people," Edwards said. "The best way to make that clear is to actually start leaving."

Edwards inadvertently jumped into the presidential race on Wednesday, a day earlier than he had planned after an Internet glitch launched his campaign Web site.

The slip-up gave an unintended double-meaning to his campaign slogan on the John Edwards '08 Web site: "Tomorrow begins today."

Aides quickly shut down the errant Web site but could not contain news of the obvious, even in the shadows of former President Ford's death.

"Better a day earlier than a day late," said Jennifer Palmieri, an Edwards adviser.

Prior to his official announcement, Edwards, 53, did the rounds on the morning news shows to preview his plan.

"I'm here to announce I'm a candidate for president of the United States," Edwards told NBC's "Today Show." "I've reached my own conclusion this is the best way to serve my country."

Edwards, 53, said the difference between his message to voters in 2004 and his 2008 presidential bid is that, "I've learned since the last campaign that it's great to identify a problem ... but the way you change things is by taking action."

Among the actions he would take at home to generate revenue for the U.S. government would be the elimination of tax cuts for the wealthy and a windfall profits tax on oil companies.

Edwards said he would use revenue from taxes on oil company profits to pay for research into new energy alternatives. He said rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy would help finance higher federal spending on education, health care and anti-poverty programs.

"These things cost money," Edwards said. He said the country is also "in a deep hole" with deficit spending and can't afford new spending without higher taxes.

In an e-mail sent Wednesday, after he had already arrived in New Orleans, Edwards wrote that he chose to announce his campaign — built on health care, poverty and other domestic priorities — in New Orleans because it demonstrates the power people have to build America when they take responsibility instead of leaving it to Washington.

"I'm running to ask millions of Americans to take responsibility and take action to change our country and ensure America's greatness in the 21st century," he wrote.

Earlier, Edwards visited the site of his planned announcement for a photo opportunity. He did yard work at the home of Orelia Tyler, 54, whose house was gutted by Hurricane Katrina and is close to being rebuilt. Tyler is still living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in her yard.

"I feel like a child with Santa Claus," Tyler said before Edwards arrived.

In his e-mail, Edwards listed five priorities to change America. Among them: "Guaranteeing health care for every single American," "Strengthening our middle class and ending the shame of poverty," "Leading the fight against global warming," and "Getting America and the world to break our addiction to oil."

He also listed "Providing moral leadership in the world — starting with Iraq, where we should begin drawing down troops, not escalating the war."

Edwards also issued a statement on Ford's death, saying he was deeply saddened by the news and calling the former Michigan Republican a "true leader."

"He called on us to never lose faith that we can change America," Edwards said.

The son of a textile mill worker, Edwards has been on a fast track most of his life despite his up-by-the-bootstraps roots.

A standout law student who became a stunningly successful trial lawyer, Edwards vaulted from nowhere politically into the U.S. Senate and then onto the 2004 Democratic presidential ticket — all in less than six years.

In 1998, in his first bid for public office, Edwards defeated incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth, R-N.C., a leading advocate for impeachment of President Clinton.

Edwards began building support for his first presidential bid shortly after arriving in the Senate. He quickly made a name for himself in Congress, using his legal background to help Democratic colleagues navigate the impeachment hearings.

Edwards launched a bid for the Democratic nomination in 2003 and quickly caught the eye of Democratic strategists. Although he won only the South Carolina primary, his skills on the trail, his cheerful demeanor, and his message of "two Americas" — one composed of the wealthy and privileged, and the other of the hardworking common man — excited voters, especially independents and moderate-leaning Democrats.

Edwards' handsome, youthful appearance also gave him a measure of star quality.

Those were among the qualities that led Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 standard bearer, to select Edwards as his running mate. It was a stunning success for someone who had majored in textile management as an undergraduate as a kind of insurance policy in case a law career didn't pan out.

Republicans have sought to cast Edwards as a money-chasing trial lawyer. It is an image that Edwards has tried to counter by arguing that he represented ordinary people wronged by big corporations.

"I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, usually big insurance companies," he liked to say. "And my job was to give them a fair shake, to give them a fair chance."

FOX News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.