John Edwards lost a prime-time speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention. He likely blew a chance at a possible Cabinet post in a Barack Obama administration. And he may very well have lost any hope of being the voice for America’s poor and forgotten.
Edwards’ infidelity to his cancer-stricken wife and the lies leading up to his confession have sent him into the political wilderness, delaying, if not destroying, any chance of regaining a place on the political stage.
"No one in the Democratic Party would want to be publicly associated with him," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "Edwards is really damaged goods at this point."
How long he will stay in political exile is anyone’s guess. Other politicians have rehabilitated themselves, but the way the story broke and continuing questions about whether he’s told the complete truth could drag the scandal out.
It already appears to be silencing his own voice in the Democratic Party and has drained good will and trust among some activists, many of whom gave their heart and soul to him and his cause.
Edwards soared on to the national stage within two years of getting elected to the Senate in 1998, and seemed to have everything in place to remain a major player on the U.S. political and economic stage, win or lose the White House.
First, he was on Al Gore’s short list as a running mate in 2000. His presidential campaign in 2004, which led to his vice presidential nomination on the ticket with John Kerry, focused on "Two Americas," a reflection, he said, of the growing divide between rich and poor. Poised for a second presidential bid, Edwards’ message became even more populist heading toward 2008.
He won acclaim from union leaders and social justice advocates who worked with him on picket lines, the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and Appalachia — and who hoped his good work for the cause would open doors to future runs for office.
Edwards has always had a compelling personal story: growing up in a middle-class textile family in rural South Carolina before becoming a successful trial lawyer and millionaire. But he was hardly a traditional populist, bedeviled during his latest 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.
"He was raised as one of us — the son of a mill worker, he always said," remembered Ken Roos of the Service Employees International Union in New Hampshire, which endorsed Edwards for president. "Fighting poverty and providing health care for everybody … I hope those are still always his beliefs."
His work didn’t pay off with the Democratic nomination, but he exited the race with a promise that the party’s eventual nominee would carry on his fight.
Edwards said last week when he acknowledged the affair that he still wanted to continue a life of service for those whose "voices never get heard."
"This is the cause of my life," Edwards said Jan. 30 as he suspended his campaign in New Orleans, among homes being rebuilt in the hurricane-ravaged city.
Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, promised Edwards a prime-time speaking role at the Democratic National Convention later this month when Edwards endorsed him to talk about economics and poverty, a Democratic official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, told The Associated Press.
But it became clear to Edwards he would be left off the convention schedule in recent weeks as questions grew following a tabloid story about the affair with Rielle Hunter, a woman who made a handful of videos about his campaign, the official said.
Edwards was also being considered as a possible Obama running mate, a congresswoman said two months ago, though Edwards said he never believed that was serious.
Discussion of a Cabinet position, such as attorney general, is all but over now.
"Had that not happened, I think he would have made an absolutely incredible secretary of labor," said Harris Raynor, Southern regional director of UNITE HERE, a union representing textile workers, hotel employees and restaurant workers nationwide. "We would have loved to see him play a prominent role in government."
Edwards worked with union and advocacy groups, some of whom would become his strongest supporters. Edwards told a crowd in Iowa last year he had walked union picket lines, rallied for labor and worked with employees more than 200 times.
Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, also traveled through pockets of poverty to put a face on the more 30 million people defined as the working poor.
"He was the first person since Lyndon Johnson to address it in a meaningful way," said Todd Mayo, 38, of Auxier, Ky., who heard Edwards speak during an eight-state anti-poverty tour in July 2007. "He was very sincere about wanting to cure the problems."
But he’s lost the trust of others since acknowledging his romantic relationship in 2006, months before he kicked off this presidential campaign, according to Roos, the union leader in New Hampshire.
"He’s going to have to start over," Roos said. "He’s going to have to rebuild his base from the bottom."
His home state may not be the place to do that. Democratic officials there say no discussions are taking place about Edwards campaigning or raising money on behalf of top statewide candidates this fall.
At age 55, with an ailing wife and two children still at home, his life may take a different direction.
When asked by ABC News in an interview whether he believed his political career was over, Edwards replied: "I’m not sure I had a political career for the future anyway. I mean, I’m not sure that politics was what I wanted to spend my life doing."
Unlike other politicians who have overcome moral failings to revive their careers, the one-term senator doesn’t have a large body of political work in elected office to base a comeback.
"Edwards was never that high to begin with," Black said.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.