NEW ORLEANS -- With the ruins of New Orleans as his backdrop yesterday, former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards called on Americans to take action against poverty, global warming and other troubles as he launched his 2008 campaign for president.
"We can't wait for someone else to do this for us," the one-time senator from North Carolina said from a muddy Ninth Ward backyard, where volunteers were fixing a home gutted by Hurricane Katrina.
Dressed in blue jeans, sneakers and a work shirt, Edwards outlined his vision of the presidency as a moral force to promote universal health care, higher wages for the working poor and other steps to improve the lives of Americans.
New Orleans, he said, offers a stark illustration of the "two Americas" that he lamented in his 2004 run for president - one for the privileged and one for those struggling to get by.
Reprising that theme for 2008, Edwards this time is stressing "personal responsibility." In a setting of flood-ravaged houses with boarded-up windows and punctured walls, he urged Americans to volunteer for anti-poverty work and cut fuel consumption to ease global warming.
"Instead of staying home and complaining, we're asking people to help," he said in the drawl that became familiar during his four-month stint as John F. Kerry's running mate. People should not expect the next president to "solve all our problems for us, because that will not happen, and all of us know it," he said.
From New Orleans, Edwards planned a three-day swing through Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, the first states to hold Democratic nomination contests.
But like more than a half-dozen other Democrats weighing a White House run, he faces an uphill battle for money and visibility in a contest dominated so far by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
"Obama and Clinton are taking up an enormous amount of political space," Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf said. Edwards, he said, "has to hope that one of the two of them falters."
The Edwards announcement came as no surprise; he has been preparing for the campaign for more than two years. To maximize media exposure, he timed his announcement for the normally slow news week before New Year's.
The death this week of former President Gerald R. Ford complicated that plan, but Edwards still drew more than 20 news crews to his morning announcement. Breaking the tradition of balloons, cheering supporters and smiling family members for such events, Edwards appeared alone on the lawn of Orelia Tyler, who has lived in a nearby trailer for months during repairs on her hurricane-wrecked home.
The early announcement - the first 2008 nominating contest in Iowa is more than a year away - enables Edwards to boost fundraising by showing donors his candidacy is a sure thing. It will cost tens of millions of dollars for a candidate to compete seriously in the early nomination states, and Edward starts with debt lingering from his 2004 race.
Since then, Edwards has worked to expand his profile for an encore campaign. He has traveled the world to strengthen his foreign policy credentials, and yesterday he called for stronger U.S. leadership in stopping "huge atrocities" in northern Uganda, which he visited a few weeks ago, and the genocide in Sudan.
"We said after Rwanda we'd never let anything like this happen again," he said. "Well, it's happening right now. America needs to lead."
Edwards also voiced regret, as he has in the past, for his Senate vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "I should have never voted for this war," said Edwards, who called for cutting the U.S. military force in Iraq by 40,000 to 50,000 troops.
In two decades as a trial lawyer, Edwards made millions of dollars litigating cases against corporations for injured plaintiffs. In his first run for public office, he sought a North Carolina seat in the Senate in 1998.
Edwards ousted the Republican incumbent, Lauch Faircloth, and served one term.
Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angeles Times.