A Kickoff for John Edwards 2.0

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If his first day is any indication, John Edwards will be running a very different kind of campaign than he did three years ago — one that just might help him stand out among the dozen presidential wannabes who will be all over Iowa and New Hampshire in the next several months.

Presidential announcements are usually highly ritualized affairs; the candidate goes back to the town where he was born, an adoring crowd cheers him, his wife brags about his greatness and he puts on his Sunday best to declare why he's running for the highest office in the land. "He didn't want to do it that way," said David Bonior, a former congressman from Michigan and one of Edwards' top advisers.

Edwards announcement was far from a surprise, since he has virtually been running since the end of the last election. But the setting, and the tone, were highly unusual. The former North Carolina Senator and Vice-Presidential nominee flew from his home in Raleigh to spend three days in New Orleans, without his family, volunteering at a food bank and then dumping dirt in the yard of a house in the Ninth Ward area of the city that was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. On the third day, dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, and standing in the muddy backyard of that same home in the Ninth Ward, Edwards declared he was running for President.

Once he made it official, Edwards' campaign pitch got even more unorthodox. He started his short speech by saying Americans needed to "take action" in a way that almost seemed to minimize the importance of whoever might be President — now or in 2009. "We want people in this campaign to actually take action now," Edwards said, "not later, not after the election. We don't want to hope that whoever's elected the next leader of the United States of America is going to solve all our problems for us. Because that will not happen." He encouraged people to volunteer, particularly in storm-damaged areas in New Orleans.

After his brief remarks, Edwards had a 15-minute press conference, where he acknowledged and discussed at length what he considers a major blunder. "My vote was a mistake and I should never have voted for this war," he said of the Iraq war, adding that the Bush Administration "has been an absolute disaster in the conducting of the war. But none of that changes or affects my responsibility. I'm responsible for what I did." He essentially promised to raise taxes, although he would focus the hikes on the wealthy and the profits of oil companies, to pay for expensive programs like universal health care. He answered so many questions that reporters practically ran out of things to ask — sorting at the end to asking whether Edwards supported the U.S.'s participation in the International Criminal Court, which the Bush Administration has opposed because of concerns over politically motivated prosecutions from other countries. (Edwards does.)

Then, at a campaign stop in Des Moines, when a man asked him what about reducing the deficit, Edwards replied pointedly, "You may not like my answer." He went on to say that his plans on energy, reducing poverty and expanding health care were higher priorities than balancing the budget and that "it's make believe" when pols say they can solve all these problems and reduce the deficit at the same time. Later the always smiling, hopeful candidate of 2004, in talking about teen pregnancy, said "when you have a 14- or 15-year-old with three little girls... she is doomed to poverty."

What's most different about Edwards, compared with 2004, is that he's running as a much more liberal candidate now. He was then a reluctant supporter of the war; now he's calling for the immediate withdrawal of at least 40,000 troops. He wanted to take incremental steps on health care then, but is working on a universal plan now. He's become even more populist in his rhetoric; at an event in Pittsburgh in August for the labor-backed group Wake Up Wal-Mart, he railed against the retailer for not offering its employees better wages or health insurance. While in 2004 he described the problems of poverty, now he has a massive, expensive agenda to get Americans out of poverty, which would include creating one million federally funded jobs at non-profits or government agencies, $500 saving accounts for low-income workers and making the first year of college free for students who agree to take part-time jobs.

In addition, he's tried to shore up his big weakness, a lack of foreign policy experience, by taking trips to Uganda and India, boning up on foreign affairs so much he seemed downright thrilled to drop the names of the leaders of Iran and North Korea in responding to one question in New Orleans.

Edwards faces many obstacles in reinventing himself and winning this campaign — notably the presence of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who could make it difficult for Edwards to raise the money he needs to competitive. And he still must overcome a reputation as a lightweight, who was described in 2004 as someone who rarely took the time to read policy memos from his staff.

But he's well liked in Iowa, where polls show him ahead of three of his likely opponents, Clinton, John Kerry and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack. If Obama runs, his task will become much more difficult, since Edwards would then be competing against a politician with many of the same attributes — charisma, good looks, an idealistic message — and who is an even fresher face on the political scene. Of course, Edwards ran and lost as as the fresh face in 2004. Now he's hoping his experience and unorthodox style will be what helps him finish on top.