Besides his plan to end poverty, Edwards also backs a universal healthcare system financed by higher taxes on wealthy Americans and fees on employers without worker health insurance, and a "College for Everyone" program that pays one year of tuition at a public college for students willing to work part time.
Edwards's embrace of working-class America is matched by sometimes sharp attacks on the country's elite. He has vowed to end Bush-era tax cuts for well-to-do Americans, refuses campaign money from lobbyists and political action committees, and has taken bare-knuckled stances against big business.
"I don't want to sit at the table and negotiate with the insurance companies – I want to beat them," he said in July at a steelworkers' union hall in gritty Georgetown, S.C., to applause. "I don't want to negotiate with the drug companies – I want to beat them."
"There is a huge class consciousness to John," a friend, US bankruptcy Judge Rich Leonard of Raleigh, who didn't return telephone calls from the Monitor, told a North Carolina newspaper a few years ago. "I think it plays out in so many of his political decisions. I think his primary, overriding political view is to put the starting point in the same place for everybody."
Yet little about Edwards's life now evokes images of the common man. The folksy persona that helped launch his political career has been buffeted in recent months by what pundits call "the three H's": the $400 haircuts he charged to his campaign, his new 28,000-square-foot home in North Carolina, and his high-paying consulting job for a New York hedge fund.
"It's a well-known criticism, and that's the accusation of hypocrisy," says John Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. "Given his populist message, many critics have noted that his lifestyle does not seem to fit the image of someone who wants to level the playing field."