Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 1995, John Edwards was stricken with altitude sickness. "My heart rate was high, and I couldn't keep food down," says the North Carolina senator, who is now vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. Afraid of heights, Edwards says he leaned heavily on his teenage son Wade, who helped him into his boots that morning and coaxed him all the way to the summit. "He led me to the top of that mountain," Edwards, 50, recalls. "He was only 15 years old. It was amazing."

It was an experience Edwards will cherish always, even if these days he's busy barnstorming across the country in search of votes for upcoming primaries. Nine months later, Wade, by then 16, was killed in a car accident when a gust of wind overturned his Jeep as he drove to the family beach house on the North Carolina coast. Devastated, Edwards took a hard look at his own life, eventually giving up a lucrative law practice to run for the U.S. Senate—just as Wade had always urged him to do. Today he keeps the boy's memory close by pinning his son's Outward Bound mountaineering button to his lapel every day. "The pain never goes away," he says.

Not that Edwards, who is locked in a two-way race with front-runner John Kerry in his quest for the Democratic nomination, ever lets sadness show on the stump. Possessed of boyish looks and southern charm, he has earned a reputation as a relentlessly upbeat politician who, with his wife, Elizabeth, 54, a former lawyer, sometimes leads staffers on his campaign bus in spirited renditions of "Surrey with the Fringe on Top." Edwards even keeps smiling while lacing into the Bush Administration for creating "two Americas"—one for the rich, he says, and the other for those struggling to hang on. No matter what happens in the primaries, Washington watchers say, he is a rising political star with populist appeal. "He has a Clinton-like ability to connect with people," says former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "They like him—that counts for a lot."

The oldest of three children of a textile-mill worker who had to take out a $50 loan to pay the hospital bill for his son's birth, Edwards grew up in a series of small towns before settling in Robbins, N.C., where he became interested in the law by watching Perry Mason on TV. The first member of his family to attend college, he met his future wife, Elizabeth Anania, a fellow student at the University of North Carolina law school, in 1975. "She was a star: beautiful, vivacious and intensely intellectual," says her brother Jay Anania, a film professor at New York University. Although somewhat intimidated, Edwards mustered the courage to ask Elizabeth to a dance at the local Holiday Inn—after explaining he couldn't afford to buy her dinner. When the pair wed two years later, they were still pinching pennies. "I got an $11 gold wedding ring," says Elizabeth, who wears it to this day.

The couple settled in Raleigh, where they raised Wade and Cate, now 21, a senior at Princeton. In time, Edwards became one of the best-known lawyers in the state. Critics called his dramatic appeals to juries manipulative, but he won millions for personal injury and medical malpractice victims. Then, Wade's death changed everything. "Afterwards we felt we could all sit on our hands or do something," says Elizabeth. Not only did John run—successfully—for Senate, Elizabeth undertook an equally daunting challenge. She quit practicing law and, at age 48, gave birth to Emma Claire, 5, and later Jack, 3, with the help of fertility treatments. "Elizabeth is determined," says her friend and neighbor Ellan Maynard. As is her husband. "Campaigning is similar to climbing a mountain," says Edwards, who gets by on 10 Diet Cokes a day and as little as four hours' sleep. "You keep fighting through obstacles." If he makes it to the top, he says he'll have his old climbing partner to thank. "I think about him all the time," Edwards says of Wade. "Maybe 50 times a day."

J.D. Heyman. Jane Sims Podesta with the Edwards campaign and Lori Rozsa in Raleigh

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Lori Rozsa.