RALEIGH, N.C. - John Edwards had always had a fear of heights, so five years ago he tried an unlikely cure. Edwards, his son, and another father and son climbed the tallest mountain in Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro.
On the third day of the four-day ascent, Edwards began suffering altitude sickness; he had severe headaches and a racing pulse, and he lost weight - 20 pounds by the time it was over.
His sickness persisted despite medication, and there was talk before the final ascent of his staying below. But with the coaxing of his 15-year-old son, Wade, who helped him put on his gear, Edwards persevered in the freezing overnight climb until he reached the 19,340-foot summit.
Edwards, a Democratic U.S. senator from North Carolina, remembers the Kilimanjaro trip as a remarkable experience. He says it cured his phobia about heights. His ascent into the thin air of presidential politics has been no less precipitous: Less than 18 months after Edwards joined the Senate, he showed up in July on Al Gore's short-list of prospective vice presidential running mates.
In every presidential election, the cast of characters extends far beyond the party nominees. There are the people who think that, if not for Dick Cheney or Joe Lieberman, they too would be part of the ticket. Or think that they will be contenders the next time. They are this campaign's might-have-beens - such as Republican Gov. Tom Ridge of Pennsylvania, or Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana.
After his appearance on Gore's short-list, Edwards became a guest of TV political talk shows, and spoke to the Iowa, Massachusetts, New York and California caucuses at the Democratic convention. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota has mentioned him as the next chairman of the committee that raises money for Democratic senators.
Edwards says he was surprised at every step in the selection process, beginning with his meeting in May with Gore's head-hunter, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to discuss the qualities of a good vice president. He expresses little disappointment at not reaching this particular summit.
"You wouldn't be human if you didn't say when you got to that stage that you want to be successful," he says. "From my perspective, it felt nothing but good."
Despite the burst of attention, he has tried to resume a normal life.
Having young children helps. Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, are parents of Emma Claire, 2, and Jack, 4 months, in addition to daughter Kate, who is in college. Edwards drops off Emma Claire at the Senate Employees Child Day Care on his way to work and picks her up at night. "Most of these guys in the Senate have very busy lives and have somebody to drive them around," Edwards says. "Me, I'm driving Emma Claire and sometimes singing with Emma Claire in the back in her car seat."
To unwind, he runs four or five miles a day on the greenways of Raleigh when he is at home and along Rock Creek Parkway when he is in Washington. One of his running partners is Bayh.
At 48, Edwards has kept his college-boy good looks and the trim physique of his high school jock days. He works at it. He has run in five marathons, including the Marine Corps Marathan in October in Washington.
"He can go farther on sheer will than anybody I know," says Rich Leonard, a federal bankruptcy judge who has run with Edwards and who climbed Kilimanjaro with him. "I don't know many people in that shape who could traipse up that summit all night long in the dark and cold."
Few people outside of North Carolina's courthouses had heard of Edwards before he defeated incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth in 1998, spending $6 million of his own money. Faircloth tried to paint Edwards as "a trial lawyer who made millions suing insurance companies."
Edwards had spent 20 years in private practice, most of that time handling medical malpractice and personal injury cases. With an engaging smile and easy demeanor that belies his intensity, he persuaded juries time and again to award multimillion-dollar verdicts.
"North Carolina had been very conservative in awarding jury ver- dicts, about the most conservative on the Eastern Seaboard," recalls Daniel Park, an Elkin, N.C., lawyer who worked with Edwards on a 1994 malpractice case against an anesthesiologist. "John pretty much changed that."
He was inducted into the Inner Circle of Advocates, a group of the 100 most successful personal-injury lawyers in the nation. At age 37, he was the youngest member.
Then in 1996, Edwards suffered the kind of heartbreaking loss that he was used to hearing his clients describe to him. Nine months after the Kilimanjaro trip, son Wade was killed in a traffic accident when the car he was driving ran off a highway shoulder and overturned.
Two weeks before the accident, Wade, a high school junior, had won a trip to Washington as a finalist in a national essay contest. His essay was on the value of public service and the importance of taking part in public life. In Washington, he spent an hour with North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. After the accident, Helms called the Edwards family, wrote a letter of condolence, sent a photograph of the boy and offered remarks on the Senate floor.
"You don't forget things like that," says Edwards, who has a warm relationship with Helms, despite their significant differences on issues. Edwards continues to wear his son's Outward Bound pin on his suit coat.
Edwards was grieving deeply when he took to trial one of his last cases. He represented the parents of Valerie Lakey, a Cary, N.C., girl whose intestines were pulled out by the suction of an uncovered swimming pool drain and who is permanently injured. A jury ordered the Wisconsin company that made the drain to pay $25 million to the girl, the largest damage award in North Carolina history.
Edwards says he would like to campaign for Gore if those efforts do not conflict with his Senate duties. He has talked with William Daley, Gore's campaign chairman, about making some appearances but has not spoken with the vice president since the party convention last month.
Despite his flirtation with being on the party's ticket, Edwards shrugs off his having future interest in national office.
"I've got more than I can say grace over," Edwards says. "It's been a pretty remarkable year and a half by any measure."
Carter Wrenn, a Republican strategist and architect of several of Helms' campaigns, says that Edwards has entered the national arena but has yet to establish himself. "He's sort of like a rock star," Wrenn says. "He's had a hit record. The question is: What does he do to build on it to have a long-term national standing. Is he going to turn into a one-act player or go on to the rest of the play?"