John Edwards' emphasis on poverty relief came late

WASHINGTON — John Edwards likes to say that ridding the nation of poverty is the cause of his life.

But it was only in the last few years that it became a dominant public theme for the Democratic presidential candidate.

During his six years as a U.S. senator, Edwards only occasionally used his Senate platform to discuss the most economically desperate members of society. Instead, he tended to concentrate on the middle class who needed a boost - people with health insurance who didn't have access to specialty care, farmers who needed market assistance, folks who had jobs, but needed government incentives to save more money.

"He is not known as an anti-poverty warrior - let's put it that way," says Scott Spitzer, an assistant professor of political science who studies poverty politics at California State University in Fullerton.

Still, Spitzer says, Edwards' current passion is a logical extension of his earlier theme of trying to "even the score" for the little guy.

Righting inequality marked his job as a personal injury lawyer, a career that made him rich, and to some extent his Senate tenure as well.

"The way he framed himself initially has much more to do with protecting people against corporate forces, or larger forces like insurance companies and doctors, HMOs and all that," said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program of Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill.

"He was attractive to the middle-class voters who felt that larger forces were weakening their ability to sustain a quality of life. Now, that didn't exclude people in poverty, but it was not the way he framed himself initially.

"But I think as he went along, he began to ratchet up his attention and his focus on poverty, and that came in his first campaign for president" in 2004, Guillory added.

Promising to be a "people's senator," Edwards was elected to the Senate from North Carolina in 1998. Despite being a first-term senator in the minority party, Edwards was able to make a mark early on a couple of issues.

He took a lead on the "Patients Bill of Rights," which was geared toward ensuring that sick people could get the treatment they needed and not have to switch doctors.

He co-sponsored bills on raising the minimum wage and others directed at the medically underserved and economically disadvantaged.

Occasionally, Edwards addressed poverty more directly. In April 1999, during a floor debate on Social Security, he noted that 54 percent of his home state's elderly would live in poverty without their monthly checks.

In October 2000, he introduced a bill intended to help low-income people get affordable housing.

"Poverty is a crushing, persistent problem in rural America," Edwards said on the Senate floor.

Such initiatives were limited, but his Senate career was truncated by higher aspirations. Edwards was first mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate when Al Gore was running for president in 2000. A couple years later, Edwards launched his own presidential contest using his celebrated "Two Americas" theme.

His "Two Americas" campaign wasn't about poverty, though. It was about inequality - about the rich, who got richer, and everybody else, who felt they couldn't get ahead.

It wasn't until after his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, and then the vice presidential nomination on John Kerry's ticket in 2004, that he sharpened his message.

His wife, Elizabeth, talks about the meeting where the decision was made in the last chapter of her book. Advisers were ticking off possible vocations, but Edwards looked restless and uninterested until a friend mentioned poverty.

"It was as if a flame had suddenly been ignited in John," she wrote in "Saving Graces." "He became so animated, happy, really. To him, all the other ideas had felt like holding patterns that were not so much efforts to accomplish anything real as decent ways of filling the time until he made the decision to run or not to run for office."

Following the 2004 election loss, Edwards helped create the Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity at UNC Chapel Hill, which gave him a platform to further his cause.

Poverty has been a central theme in his current bid for the White House. He officially kicked off his campaign among the destitute in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. He launched a poverty tour to draw attention to America's most underprivileged pockets, and he proposed a detailed plan for lifting them up.

"This is the cause of my life," he said at a candidates' forum this summer. "Ending poverty in America is what my life is about."

(Tim Funk of The Charlotte Observer contributed to this article.)