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HIS BIG SPEECH

Today, microphone passes to Edwards

By high school, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John F. Kerry had immersed them selves in politics with a fervor that would only intensify as they came of age in the maelstrom of the 1960s. But not John Edwards, the man many consider the future of the Democratic Party.

''We were busy trying to figure out how to get money to go cruising around town," said Edwards's high school buddy Bobby Caviness, 52, who still lives in Robbins, N.C., where Edwards grew up. ''John would get his parents' '63 Plymouth, and we'd drive back and forth downtown. Most of what we talked about was football. And girls."

After a string of career politicians carrying the Democratic banner, men who had been considered on the presidential track by even their high school friends, Edwards is a striking anomaly: The one-term North Carolina senator's political ambition did not seem to spark before his mid-40s. Before his 1997 US Senate run, his interest in politics and policy seemed vague at best.

While young Clinton and Kerry fantasized about joining John F. Kennedy's Camelot, Edwards yearned to play defensive cornerback for the Clemson University football team. He once mentioned to his soon-to-be wife, Elizabeth, in 1975 that he might enter the political arena one day. It never came up in serious fashion again. For two decades.

So what makes John Edwards run now?

This evening, Edwards, 51, will make his first nationally televised speech, his introduction to the nation, in which he must both advocate on Kerry's behalf and make sure his reputation is burnished for an almost certain run for the presidency later on.

The central task Edwards faces tonight, and for the foreseeable political future, is to convince Americans that he is more than an attractive mug and golden orator, that his convictions run deep and his expertise is broad.

These tasks have dogged Edwards, despite the adulation many Democrats clearly have for him. Those same Democrats rejected him in favor of Kerry, largely because of his slim resume. The time when outsider inexperience was favored over a lifetime of ambition seems gone, lost in the rubble of the World Trade Center. Even Kerry, during the primaries, wondered aloud whether Edwards was ready to lead.

This week, Edwards had to defend himself yet again on the question, saying, ''Actually, I have a whole lot more national security experience than a whole group of recent presidents -- Reagan, Carter, this president, Clinton, of course."

''I am prepared for this job," Edwards said. ''I think what most people in America think is that it's not the length of your resume, it's the strength of your vision."

Edwards is not given to public self-analysis. Elizabeth Edwards, who is articulate and gregarious, often helps explain her husband's motives and thinking to reporters. In an interview, she attributed his relative political ambivalence during the '60s, even compared with her, to the fact that he came of age just after the most politicized moments of that era.

''I was in college when Kent State [shootings] happened. He was still in junior high," she said, noting she is four years older than her husband. ''He wasn't eligible for the [Vietnam War] draft when it started."

Glenn Bergenfield, 51, who met Edwards in 1974 at the University of North Carolina law school, recalled, ''I can't say I thought he would be a senator or president." The two men kept in touch over the years.

''John was always interested in his community," Bergenfield said. ''I don't know if you'd call that political, but he was very involved in things like coaching kids' sports. He played Santa Claus."

Edwards has said that his blossoming law practice representing people injured in medical, roadway, and other accidents sensitized him to the importance of politics. He grew angered at laws that shielded corporate interests, and came to believe that he could help more people through politics than as a litigator.

''He knew how good he was, but he couldn't help them all," Elizabeth Edwards said. ''His movement into politics was a natural flow from helping people in their real lives."

Some have tried to connect his 1997 Senate run with the 1996 death of his teenage son, Wade, in a car crash, an event that deeply scarred him.

''Did Wade's death make it more likely or not? I don't know the answer to that. . . . I thought it wouldn't happen," said Elizabeth Edwards, explaining that her husband's political ambition grew as he became increasingly frustrated with the policies of Lauch Faircloth, the North Carolina Republican whose Senate seat Edwards would take in 1998.

Within weeks of winning, Democrats were buzzing about their handsome new Southern Democrat. With barely a year of experience in the Senate, he made Gore's shortlist of running mates for his presidential bid in 2000.

Four years later, the question of Edwards' experience lingers. Is he ready to send young men and women into battle, the central leadership question today?

Elizabeth Edwards suggests that his background may give him a unique qualification: ''Coming as he does from a rural community, the kind of people that make up the armed forces, he doesn't see them as nameless faces but the sons and daughters of the people he grew up with."

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com. 

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