NEW ORLEANS — With the ruins of New Orleans as his backdrop, former Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards on Thursday called on Americans to take action against poverty, global warming and other troubles as he officially launched his 2008 campaign for president.
"We can't wait for someone else to do this for us," the onetime U.S. senator from North Carolina said from a muddy 9th 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 healthcare, higher wages for the working poor and other steps.
New Orleans, he said, illustrates 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 -- which he said the government had done too little to repair -- he urged Americans to volunteer for anti-poverty work and cut fuel use to ease global warming.
"Instead of staying home and complaining, we're asking people to help," he said in the drawl that became familiar to the nation during his four-month stint as running mate to 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry after Edwards' own presidential bid failed.
Edwards also called for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops from the war in Iraq, saying the move would begin to restore America's standing as a world leader.
Campaigning hours later in Des Moines, Edwards took a swipe at a leading Republican contender for president, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, for saying the U.S. should send more troops to Iraq.
"It would be an enormous mistake to adopt the McCain doctrine and escalate this war in Iraq," he said to cheers from several hundred people packed into the central atrium of a downtown museum.
As he has in the past, Edwards voiced regret for his Senate vote to authorize the U.S. invasion of Iraq. "I should have never voted for this war," he said.
Iowa was the first stop on his three-day swing to the first states to hold Democratic nomination contests. Edwards plans to campaign in New Hampshire and Nevada today and in South Carolina on Saturday.
By starting in Des Moines, Edwards underscored Iowa's crucial role in his campaign. His surprisingly strong second-place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucuses was a major lift to his presidential candidacy that year, and a poor showing here in 2008 could doom his candidacy. He has visited Iowa 16 times since the 2004 election, and polls suggest he holds an early edge in the state.
"He's been here as much as, if not more than, anybody else, and he's highly regarded by a lot of Democrats in Iowa," said Peverill Squire, a University of Iowa political science professor.
Edwards, 53, is the third Democrat officially in the race for president, following Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio. He is also the best known nationally.
But like more than half a dozen Democrats still weighing a White House run, he faces a tough struggle for money and visibility in a contest dominated so far by two Democrats who have not formally announced intentions -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
"Obama and Clinton are taking up an enormous amount of political space," said Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf. Edwards "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. (His campaign website also accidentally went live Wednesday, a day early, tipping his hand.)
To maximize media exposure, he timed his announcement for the normally slow news week before New Year's. The death this week of President Ford complicated that plan, but Edwards still drew more than 20 news crews to his chilly morning announcement in New Orleans.
Forgoing a customary campaign launch with balloons and cheering supporters, Edwards appeared alone on the bleak 9th Ward lawn of Orelia Tyler, who has lived in a frontyard trailer for months as repairs continued on her hurricane-wrecked home.
The early announcement -- the opening 2008 contest in Iowa is more than a year away -- enables Edwards to jump-start fundraising by showing donors that his candidacy is a sure thing. But he starts with debt lingering from 2004, and it will cost him tens of millions of dollars to compete seriously for the party nomination.
Edwards is no longer the fresh face he was in 2004 as a first-term senator whose candidacy for president was strong enough to keep him in the Democratic race longer than anyone but Kerry.