FREDERICKSBURG, Va.—In August, he'd been the first White House wannabe to campaign with Ned Lamont, the antiwar Senate contender from Connecticut who made national news by taking the Democratic nomination away from Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
Then former and future presidential candidate John Edwards volunteered to fly last week to Virginia—the site of September's hottest U.S. Senate race—to campaign and raise money for Democrat Jim Webb, a onetime long shot who's closing in on gaffe-prone Republican Sen. George Allen.
But it soon became clear, as Edwards addressed the cheering crowd at a Webb-for-Senate rally, that the ex-senator from North Carolina and 2004 Democratic vice presidential hopeful also had come to Virginia to build excitement for another candidate: himself.
In a big-picture speech he's been road-testing around the country since early August, the 53-year-old Edwards—coatless, shirt sleeves rolled up—tapped into everything from anger at President Bush to what he called a hunger in America to be inspired and feel good about the country again.
"I grew up in an America where we were the light. We were the model. Everyone looked up to the United States," Edwards told his partisan audience at the University of Mary Washington. "We weren't the country of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. We are better than this!"
The scene was a flashback to 2004—when Edwards broke from the Democratic pack with his "Two Americas" speech—and a likely preview of 2008.
Gathering political IOUs and exposure by campaigning for others has been a tradition with presidential-candidates-to-be for at least 40 years, when Republican Richard Nixon paved the way for his 1968 nomination by boosting Republican candidates in 1966.
Edwards isn't the only probable 2008 presidential candidate to spend time and money campaigning for congressional candidates this year. But he may be the most relentless.
With no Senate seat to keep him tethered to Washington, he's been on a tear since early August. At last count, he'd campaigned and/or raised money for 25 candidates in 14 states.
He's campaigned for Democratic House candidate Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Reps. John Spratt and James Clyburn in South Carolina. On Oct. 13, he's scheduled to be at North Carolina's Concord High School to campaign with Democrat Larry Kissell, who's trying to unseat Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C.
Edwards, a disciplined politician who sticks to his message, said he wasn't thinking of his own possible presidential prospects when he campaigned for others.
"What enters my mind is that these elections are critical, and how important it is to get good people into office," Edwards said during his Virginia stop. "I honestly think that what's going to happen in America and in the world will be largely controlled by what happens in the next series of elections."
But by helping others, Edwards helps himself, said Ferrell Guillory, the director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life.
"This has become Edwards' life," Guillory said. "That's what he does these days: run for president."
Candidates appear thrilled to get a hand from Edwards. As a national political celebrity with Kennedy-esque charisma, he can attract crowds, cameras and cash.
Counting the $50,000 haul at the Webb fundraiser, Edwards has helped 2006 Democratic candidates raise almost $7.2 million.
Even though Edwards mentioned Webb only a few times during his 14-minute speech in Fredericksburg, the Senate candidate didn't seem to mind.
"This is a man who was the (Democrats' 2004) vice presidential nominee," Webb said. "I was just really happy to have him here."
In Iowa and New Hampshire—states with early presidential balloting—Edwards has headlined fundraisers for state House and Senate candidates as well as a contender for Iowa's secretary of agriculture. If they win, they're sure to remember him in 2008.
In vote-rich California and Florida, Edwards has campaigned with the Democratic candidates for governor.
In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to distance himself from Bush. But the appearance of Edwards—Sen. John Kerry's running mate in 2004—enabled Democrats there to resurrect images of Schwarzenegger campaigning for Bush-Cheney in `04.
The California trip also helped Edwards, said Bill Carrick, media consultant for Schwarzenegger's Democratic opponent, Phil Angelides.
Edwards "got to go out and test-market how to say things," Carrick said. "That's something hard to do once those early primaries start."
Ed Turlington, a Raleigh, N.C., lawyer who chaired Edwards' 2004 presidential campaign, said all this traveling also kept Edwards on television and in the newspapers, and let him talk about what he'd learned since he left the Senate.
Criticized in 2004 as a novice on foreign affairs, Edwards has traveled around the world in the past two years, a fact he mentions prominently in The Speech he's been giving around the country. In Fredericksburg, he sounded like a man who drops places the way some people drop names: He told about visiting Israel and Russia, about being left breathless by the poverty in India and about his then-upcoming Sept. 28-Oct. 3 trip to Uganda.
The key for presidential contenders such as Edwards "is to get yourself in the middle of the hottest races," said Amy Walter, a Washington-based analyst with the Cook Political Report. "It was Connecticut, then Virginia. Who knows where the next one will be? Wherever it is, you follow the spotlight."
Here are some stops on the campaign-for-others trail for former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C.:
Sept. 26—Virginia: U.S. Senate candidate Jim Webb.
Sept. 23—Minnesota: U.S. House candidate Patty Wetterling, U.S. Rep. James Oberstar and U.S. Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar.
Sept. 23—Wisconsin: U.S. Reps. David Obey and Ron Kind.
Sept. 21—Texas: U.S. House candidate Nick Lampson.
Sept. 19—Vermont: Rep. Bernard Sanders, an independent who frequently votes with Democrats and who's a U.S. Senate candidate.
Sept. 15—Florida: Gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis, lieutenant governor candidate Daryl Jones and U.S. House candidate Ron Klein.
Sept. 11—Nevada: U.S. House candidate Tessa Hafen.
Sept. 9—California: Gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides.
Sept. 4—Missouri: U.S. Senate candidate Claire McCaskill.
Aug. 22—North Carolina: U.S. House candidate Heath Shuler.
Aug. 22—South Carolina: U.S. Reps. John Spratt and James Clyburn.
Aug. 17—Connecticut: U.S. Senate candidate Ned Lamont.
Aug. 12—Iowa: State House candidate John Calhoun and secretary of agriculture candidate Denise O'Brien.
Aug. 10—Minnesota: U.S. Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar.
Aug. 4-5—New Hampshire: State Sens. Dave Gottesman and Peter Burling and state Senate candidate Jackie Cilley.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Need to map