John Edwards acknowledged Friday that he had an extramarital affair with a campaign filmmaker while running for president, ending months of denials of what he had dismissed as "tabloid trash."
Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, went on ABC's "Nightline" to deliver a stunning admission: Yes, he had sex with Rielle Hunter, a 44-year-old videographer hired by his campaign. No, he said, he did not father her child.
"In 2006, I made a serious error in judgment and conducted myself in a way that was disloyal to my family and to my core beliefs," Edwards said in a statement issued after ABC News reported the news Friday afternoon on its Web site.
"I recognized my mistake and I told my wife that I had a liaison with another woman, and I asked for her forgiveness. Although I was honest in every painful detail with my family, I did not tell the public."
In apologizing, Edwards said: "In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic. If you want to beat me up -- feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself. I have been stripped bare and will now work with everything I have to help my family and others who need my help."
The admission likely ends Edwards' once-meteoric political career -- which saw him rise from a prominent Raleigh trial lawyer to the U.S. Senate, two serious presidential campaigns and a place on the 2004 ticket as a vice presidential candidate.
Wade Smith, a former law partner in Raleigh, said the scandal would likely "have a profound impact on his ability to go forward with a public life."
"I hope that in the long run people will remember the good things he did," Smith said.
The disclosure is likely to have little effect on the presidential race in North Carolina, where polls suggest that Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama are in a competitive contest. Edwards did not have a large political organization in the state. His popularity had diminished in the Tar Heel state as he moved to his political left to win the Democratic presidential primaries.
But the acknowledgement tarnished Edwards' image as a clean-cut family man who stood by his wife through the loss of their son in an automobile accident in 1996, and during her continuing battle with breast cancer.
"One of the very strong pieces of John Edwards was his relationship with his wife," said Wayne Lesperance, a professor at New England College in New Hampshire, where Edwards gave the commencement address last year. "He was seen as the kind of husband that a lot of men would like to be in those situations and that a lot of wives would like to have. He became a model husband in that circumstance.
"This is the kind of thing that is really gut-wrenching."
'What kind of mess?'
Supporters reacted with sadness and anger.
Edwards' former campaign manager, former U.S. Rep. David Bonior of Michigan, said Edwards betrayed thousands of supporters' faith and confidence.
"What if he had won the nomination? What kind of mess would that have put this party in?" Bonior said in a phone interview.
Edwards denied that he had fathered Hunter's baby girl, Frances Quinn, who was born Feb. 27 in Santa Barbara. He said the timing of his affair in 2006 made it impossible for him to be the father. He offered to take tests to prove he was not the girl's father.
The National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, first reported the story last October.
The allegations resurfaced this month when the Enquirer reported that Edwards had visited Hunter in the Beverly Hills Hilton and the tabloid printed a grainy photograph of Edwards holding a baby. Edwards told ABC that he met with Hunter to keep the scandal from becoming public. He questioned the authenticity of the photograph showing him with the baby. Andrew Young, a married, long-time Edwards aide, has said he fathered the child with Hunter. Young and his wife were living in a Governor's Club house in Chapel Hill last year. Hunter was living in the same development, according to the Enquirer. Hunter and the Youngs later moved to Santa Barbara.
How Hunter and Young and his wife were paying for their accommodations had been a mystery. Fred Baron, a wealthy Dallas trial lawyer who was Edwards' finance chairman, shed some light on it Friday.
"I decided independently to help two friends and former colleagues rebuild their lives when harassment by supermarket tabloids made it impossible for them to conduct a normal life," Baron said in a statement.
"John Edwards was not aware that assistance was provided to anyone involved in this matter. I did it of my own volition and without the knowledge, instruction, or suggestion of John Edwards or anyone else. The assistance was offered and accepted without condition."
The affair took place after Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of the 2004 election. Edwards said it ended before the couple announced in March 2007 that her cancer had returned.
Edwards told ABC that his wife was angry when he told her in 2006 about the affair: "I think furious would be a good way to describe it."
Friends and supporters were sorting through their feelings on Friday.
Edwards' next-door neighbor Carol Jenkins, 61, said she didn't see the need for such fuss. Television crews and reporters swarmed outside of Edwards' Orange County home Friday afternoon.
"I don't know that it's really as newsworthy as everybody's making it out to be," she said as a news helicopter buzzed over her home. "I mean, Russia invaded Georgia today."
David Kirby, a friend and former law partner, said the affair was out of character.
"You can disapprove of conduct, but you don't abandon a person who is a wonderful and gifted person who has done a lot for others and can still do a lot for others in the future," said Kirby, who has been a friend of the couple since law school. "I know both of them well enough to know they will somehow move past this."