North Carolina's John Edwards accepted the Democratic Party's nomination for vice president Wednesday night, touting the national security credentials of the man who put him on the ticket and calling for new efforts to help the squeezed middle class and the poor.
Appearing before thousands of delegates at the FleetCenter and millions more TV viewers, Edwards employed the rhetorical gifts that made him one of the nation's most successful and feared plaintiffs' attorneys. This time it was on behalf of his latest client, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who was formally nominated for president just after Edwards' speech and who faces a tight race with President Bush.
"Nothing makes me prouder than standing with him in this campaign," Edwards said. "I am so humbled to be your candidate for vice president of the United States."
Edwards delivered a speech familiar to those who heard him on the presidential primary trail -- including his concern about the disparities of the "two Americas" of haves and have-nots, and his caution that millions of working people are one crisis away from going over the financial cliff.
For the hard-working person who can't get ahead, for the elderly who can't pay their medical bills and for those struggling to find a way to go to college, Edwards had one refrain: "Hope is on the way."
For Edwards, it was a moment of triumph marking a meteoric rise in American politics that has no parallel in Tar Heel history. The 51-year-old Raleigh, N.C., resident rose from Moore County mill town boy to millionaire trial lawyer to U.S. senator and now vice presidential nominee. Win or lose in November, Edwards is seen as a Democratic star and likely future presidential candidate.
Edwards has shown a remarkable political resiliency. Seven months ago, his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed dead in the water, only to rise in Iowa. In March, Edwards ended his campaign, only to win a place on the ticket three weeks ago.
Edwards entered the arena with his trademark thumbs-up gesture and a broad grin as the crowd chanted "Edwards, Edwards, Edwards" and as Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" blasted through the arena. And he took full advantage of his young, photogenic family, sweeping his 6-year-old daughter Emma Claire in his arms at the end of his address.
He was introduced by his wife, Elizabeth, the former Raleigh lawyer, soccer mom and close adviser, who described her husband "as the smartest, toughest, sweetest man I know." She said that later this week they will celebrate their 27th anniversary with their traditional visit to Wendy's restaurant.
His daughter Cate, 22, introduced her mother. His proud parents, Wallace and Bobbie, watched from the audience. And in the hardscrabble town of Robbins that is spotted with closed factories, friends and former neighbors cheered.
In a half-hour speech frequently interrupted by applause from delegates holding red-and-white "Edwards" signs, he sought to convince voters that Kerry, who won three Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War, can be trusted to lead the country in a time of war and unprecedented terrorist threats at home.
Edwards said Kerry's swift boat crew mates "saw up close what he's made of:" his heroism and his focus on duty instead of his personal safety.
The tone of the speech was in keeping with Edwards' upbeat style of campaigning. He avoided criticizing President Bush by name. But he did accuse unidentified Republicans of trying to "take this campaign for the highest office in the land down the lowest possible road."
"Between now and November, you -- the American people -- you can reject the tired, old, hateful, negative politics of the past," Edwards said. "And instead you can embrace the politics of hope, the politics of what's possible because this is America, where everything is possible."
The biggest speech of Edwards' career was the product of about 30 drafts, polished off in his Country Club Hills home in North Raleigh on Tuesday. Just after midnight Wednesday, Edwards and his wife visited the FleetCenter to familiarize themselves with the stage. By 5 p.m. Wednesday, Edwards was comfortable enough that he left his hotel suite to jog, a detail of Secret Service agents in tow.
Reintroducing himself to voters who are only now beginning to pay attention to the election, Edwards presented a thumbnail autobiography -- a working-class background, his law career of fighting "big HMOs and big insurance companies" and his advocacy in the Senate for a patients' bill of rights.
"The heart of this campaign -- your campaign -- is to make sure that everyone has those same opportunities that I had growing up -- no matter where you live, who your family is or what the color of your skin is," Edwards said. "This is the America we believe in."
To help accomplish that, Edwards pledged that he and Kerry will push through tax credits for health-care costs, for child care and for college tuition. He sought to inoculate the Kerry-Edwards ticket from Republican assertions the candidates are big taxers, saying that only the wealthiest 2 percent would see their tax cuts rescinded to finance new programs.
"We'll roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, close corporate loopholes and cut government contractors and wasteful spending," Edwards said.
Edwards seemed to try to strike an ideological balance. He called for efforts to end poverty and address racial inequality. But he also called for a strong military, including doubling the Special Forces and reforming U.S. intelligence agencies. And he vowed that he and Kerry will aggressively fight terrorism -- in part by rebuilding America's alliances around the world.
"We will have one clear unmistakable message for al-Qaeda and the rest of these terrorists," Edwards said. "You cannot run. You cannot hide. And we will destroy you."
He was praised by those who officially nominated him, including former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, a two-time Democratic U.S. Senate nominee. And in honor of Edwards' night, rocker John Mellencamp sang "Small Town," the theme song of Edwards' campaign.
But well before Edwards took the stage, Republicans moved to prick his balloon, portraying him in two news conferences as out of step with ordinary voters.
"They have undertaken an extreme makeover of John Edwards up there in Boston," said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, his Republican seat mate from North Carolina.
U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, said he did not think Edwards would help the Democratic ticket in the South because "he is so out of touch with mainstream Southerners from a voting record standpoint."
Staff writer Rob Christensen can be reached at 829-4532 or firstname.lastname@example.org.