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Backed by his friendly Southern drawl, the practiced charm of a courtroom warrior and a smile bright enough to blind the camera’s eye, John Edwards never lacked the confidence to take the big risk.
He risked in the courtroom, making millions as a trial lawyer by winning cases for underdog clients. He gambled as a political rookie, successfully challenging a GOP Senate incumbent in his very first run for public office. He took a chance while a member of that most exclusive club, leaving after a single term to run for the White House.
And so why not one more risk?
Why not run again for president, this time while carrying on an extramarital affair that could easily sink his campaign and — should he win the Democratic nomination — his party’s hopes of winning the Oval Office?
"The first time he kissed her, he should have been thinking, ‘Goodbye to my political career,’" said Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science and psychology at Stanford University. But candidates such as Edwards "feel invulnerable, that they feel it has gone on all of the time, that I’m not going to be scrutinized at this level … and it will stay private."
It took nearly a year for the tabloid accusations, which Edwards was quick to dismiss and his supporters were quick to ignore, for the former North Carolina senator to finally admit Friday to having an affair in 2006 with a woman who produced a handful of videos for his campaign.
In doing so, Edwards admitted he was seduced by his own success and the lavish attention and praise that came with his meteoric rise from his roots in Raleigh as a successful but relatively unknown personal injury attorney.
Just two years after his Senate victory, he was on Al Gore’s short list for vice president. After losing his own bid for the Democratic nomination a few years later, he bounced back by winning a spot as John Kerry’s running mate on the party’s ticket. Running again last year, he entered the race as one of the three favorites on the Democratic side.
"In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic," Edwards said in a confessional statement released Friday. "If you want to beat me up — feel free. You cannot beat me up more than I have already beaten up myself."
That is unlikely.
Many of those closest to Edwards did not hide their disappointment and anger after the 55-year-old husband and father admitted to both having an affair with filmmaker Rielle Hunter and lying about it for months. Former campaign manager David Bonior said he was one of the thousands of friends and supporters that Edwards betrayed, and he shuddered when thinking about what might have happened had Edwards beaten Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in the party’s primaries.
"You can’t lie in politics and expect to have people’s confidence," he said.
On Saturday, the issues surrounding the affair became more complicated when Hunter said through her attorney that she will not participate in DNA testing to establish the paternity of her 5-month-old daughter. That decision by Hunter means that the issue of who the father is remains an open question. Frances Quinn Hunter, was born on Feb. 27 this year, and no father’s name is given on the birth certificate filed in California. A former Edwards campaign staff member professes to be the father. On Friday night, Edwards said he would be willing to take a paternity test to put the issue to rest.
When leaving the race in January, Edwards extracted a pledge from his rivals to make ending poverty as central to their campaign as it was to his own. It was seen then as a sign that Edwards didn’t plan to leave public life behind, and indeed, a few months later his timely endorsement helped voters forget Obama’s ugly 41-point loss to Clinton in the West Virginia primary.
Before rumors about his affair began spreading in Democratic circles, many expected Edwards to speak at this month’s Democratic National Convention as a potential candidate for a cabinet post in an Obama administration. That’s all gone now, said Dennis Wicker, a Democrat who was North Carolina’s lieutenant governor from 1993 to 2001.
"His credibility is shot. His political career is over," Wicker said. "I don’t know what causes one to cross a bright line like this one, but it’s probably going to haunt him for the rest of his life … it’s colossal."
Edwards has always had a compelling personal story: the son of a mill worker in rural South Carolina who became a millionaire and later spurred to public service in part by the accidental death of his 16-year-old son. But for all his popularity, especially within the Democratic Party’s progressive movement, Edwards doesn’t have a strong base in North Carolina on which to build a recovery.
He only beat GOP Sen. Lauch Faircloth by three percentage points in 1998, and then didn’t serve long enough in the Senate to build a legacy of constituent service that powered his controversial contemporary — Sen. Jesse Helms — to five terms in office. Even though he was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, North Carolina voted for President Bush.
And he is hardly a traditional populist, bedeviled during his campaign by tales of $400 haircuts and reminders of his 102-acre estate — complete with basketball gym and 28,000-square-foot mansion — outside of Chapel Hill.
Any return to public life would also bring charges of hypocrisy: In 2007, a year after Edwards says he ended the affair with Hunter, he told CBS News that it’s a "fair evaluation for America to engage in, to look at what kind of human beings each of us are, and what kind of president we’d make."
Finally, the affair is sure to be seen as a particularly painful blow to his wife, Elizabeth, who continued to campaign during his second run for the White House after she was diagnosed with an incurable recurrence of cancer. Few would argue that his wife is as beloved, if not more, than Edwards himself.
"I liked him before, but I don’t see any integrity," said Gina Mohammid Nasir, 43, a yoga teacher from Wilmington. "The image of him and his wife was very important … the image of that union."
If there is any hope for an Edwards redemption, it will come from those touched by yet another of his risks: to base a pair of national political campaigns on a fight against poverty and the struggles of low-income Americans.
In Greene County, Edwards founded a program in 2005 that sent 190 high school graduates to college for free. Those who benefited said Friday that his personal infidelities, no matter how distasteful, could not undo such good works.
"I have great things to say about John Edwards. He opened that window up for our rural community," said Sara Johnson, whose son Tyler earned one of the scholarships. "It gave something to our community, and our students and their families."
Associated Press writers Erin Gartner and Marlon A. Walker in Raleigh, Kevin Maurer in Wilmington, and Whitney Woodward in Chapel Hill contributed to this report.