Many of his campaign pledges seem aimed at improving the lives of blue-collar Americans. A centerpiece is his plan to end poverty in 30 years through a mix of a higher minimum wage, stronger unions, an expanded housing voucher program, and tougher laws against predatory lending. His proposal would also create a million government-subsidized "steppingstone" jobs, plus new work and child-support requirements for fathers of children on welfare.
Unusual for a presidential candidate, he has also pushed for a larger American role – including a cabinet-level post – in the fight against global poverty. He says his $5 billion plan, with its focus on preventive health measures and schooling for every child on the planet, will restore America's battered moral standing in the world.
His efforts have gone beyond campaign-trail rhetoric. After leaving the Senate in 2004, Edwards raised $3 million to found The Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity, an arm of the University of North Carolina Law School, his alma mater, that sponsors research and public forums on poverty.
Edwards, the center's director until announcing his bid for the presidency last December, had a particular interest in the working poor – how to raise their wages and rates of union membership, associates there say.
Marion Crain, the associate director under Edwards and now the director, says Edwards spoke often of the state-subsidized college education that launched his career.
"He thought it was wrong to have a country premised on equality of opportunity where everyone can live the Horatio Alger dream and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, when in fact that's not the reality" for most people, Ms. Crain says. "The reality is shaped by public policies and laws and accidents of birth that leave people really ill-equipped to do that."