WASHINGTON – Even as a working-class kid in a tiny Southern mill town, young Johnny Edwards displayed an infectious smile and sunny outlook that were destined to take him far.
"Persistently optimistic," is how his wife, Elizabeth, describes him.
"Losing's not in his vocabulary," says his father, Wallace Edwards.
Now, as John Kerry's (search) chosen running mate, John Edwards (search) has the opportunity to spread his can-do message on behalf of the Democratic ticket. And he has the challenge to overcome criticism that as a first-term senator he lacks the seasoning and foreign policy credentials for such a position.
Edwards, at age 51, is known as a skilled speaker and politician. He made it onto Al Gore's short list when he was searching for a running mate in 2000.
He brushed aside questions about whether he has the experience for a presidential ticket, saying his working-class roots give him all the seasoning he needs.
"The experience I have is the right kind of experience," he said last year as he campaigned unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination. "I do see things through the eyes of most Americans. I don't think staying in Washington for decades strengthens your ability to do what needs to be done."
Edwards, flashing his broad, boyish smile, occasionally had to remind audiences during the primary campaign that he was 50 years old — he turned 51 last month.
The native of Seneca, S.C., has always seemed like a young man in a hurry.
Soon after his 1998 election to the Senate over incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth, Edwards was making a name for himself in Congress.
His lawyer's background was useful in helping senators navigate the Clinton impeachment hearings. And he won early praise for helping push a patient's rights bill through the Senate, though it never won final passage.
Edwards quickly caught the eye of Democratic strategists as a presidential possibility for 2004. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, politicians such Edwards cut back on their exploratory travels around the country.
Edwards entered the Democratic presidential race with much fanfare at the start of 2003, and he held open the possibility that he would run for re-election to his Senate seat in 2004. But by September of 2003, Edwards decided he would not run for re-election, betting his political future on the presidential race — although some viewed him all along as more likely a vice presidential contender.
Edwards took time to find his campaign voice, but his upbringing in tiny mill towns of the Carolinas combined with rhetorical skills developed in the courtroom helped to make a compelling case to voters in early states such as Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin.
"I love just being able to talk to people, on their level about the case and why I think we are right," he once said of his legal background.
Republicans tried during the primaries to cast him as a money-chasing trial lawyer, but Edwards countered that he represented ordinary people wronged by big businesses and heartless insurance companies.
"I spent most of my adult life representing kids and families against very powerful opponents, usually big insurance companies," he once said. "And my job was to give them a fair shake, to give them a fair chance."
Edwards won only the South Carolina primary during the early weeks of the campaign, but his skills on the trail and his message of "Two Americas" excited voters, especially independents and moderate-leaning Democrats.
Edwards grew up the son of two mill employees in Robbins, N.C., then went to college and law school in North Carolina. He became an extremely successful trial lawyer, winning $150 million worth of verdicts or settlements in 60 cases in the 1990s.
Edwards and his wife lost their teenage son Wade in 1996 when high winds swept his Jeep off a highway. Although they were in their 40s and had a surviving daughter, Cate, they decided to have two more children, Emma Claire and Jack.