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Edwards acknowledges difficult public image

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"Obviously, he's got some problems, but he's a nice guy," Bonderer said. "I kind of didn't know that. I thought, `What in God's name am I going to have when he gets here?' But he's a pretty down to earth guy." Edwards was funny, Bonderer said. "He jokes about how it's obvious that the American people don't want him to be president."

But mostly, there are the many long hours in the big house. Edwards spends time with his two younger children, taking them on a trip to the beach last weekend. He keeps company with Elizabeth, whose cancer returned in the spring of 2007. And, through it all, he contemplates a lifetime of recovering from a steep fall from public grace.

"The two things I'm on the planet for now are to take care of the people I love and to take care of people who cannot take care of themselves," he said.

In agreeing to his first extended interview since confirming the affair, Edwards refused to address Hunter, the baby's paternity, his wife's memoir, or the investigation. But he spoke expansively over the phone for 90 minutes about his tumultuous decade in politics, which began when, after the death of his teenaged son in a car accident, he left behind a career as a trial lawyer to run for the Senate in 1998.

He said that for all the trauma that came of the 2008 campaign, he is not ready to declare that it had been a mistake to run, calling that a "very complex question." He believed, he said, that he had pushed Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton in a more progressive direction on issues including health care - Edwards was the first to propose an individual insurance mandate - and that the value of his having run will be determined partly by what Obama achieves on these fronts.

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