BOSTON — John Edwards, the upbeat Southern populist on John Kerry's ticket, accused Republicans on Wednesday of trying to "take this campaign for the highest office in the land down the lowest possible road."
In a speech to convention delegates poised to make him their vice presidential candidate, the North Carolina senator asked Americans to "reject the tired, old, hateful, negative politics of the past" and embrace a Democratic ticket he said was full of promise and hope.
Edwards' address to the Democratic National Convention marked North Carolina's biggest moment in the national political spotlight in anyone's lifetime.
Susan Campbell, a delegate from Winston-Salem, said she was eager for a national audience to hear an upbeat speech from Edwards.
"I just love his message," she said. "It's something people need to hear right now. There's so much division right now, and I think he's one of those politicians that brings people together."
In Edwards' hometown of Robbins, population 1,200, a live audience watched a feed from the convention in the gymnasium at North Moore High School, with shots of that crowd in turn expected to be shown to those inside Boston's FleetCenter.
In Boston, State Treasurer Richard Moore was on hand for Edwards' big moment.
"We probably know what he's going to say much more than the nation," Moore said. "He has taken a very optimistic approach to serious issues. As we like to say: 'He's done us proud.'"
Said North Carolina delegate Shirley Key: "I remember John Edwards before he ever got into politics. People everywhere in North Carolina love him, because he is such a family man. He understands where we're all coming from."
Key of Pilot Mountain, chairs the Democratic Women of Surry County. She held a fund-raiser for Edwards during his first political race, the 1998 U.S. Senate contest in which the Raleigh lawyer ousted incumbent Republican Lauch Faircloth.
Many delegates said they were pleased Edwards planned to touch on the theme of "two Americas" that was the main thrust of many of his stump speeches during his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Key felt that having a chance to speak before a national audience would be Edwards' best chance to defuse Republican criticism of his work as a trial lawyer.
Key referred to Edwards' best-known case, which involved Valerie Lakey, a 5-year-old Raleigh girl whose intestines were sucked from her body when she was caught in the suction of a pool drain.
Rejecting an offer of $17.5 million, Edwards won a verdict of $25 million -- the largest personal-injury award in state history.
"He just happened to be the attorney who got that case, and I'm sure the parents of that child appreciate what he did," Key said.
If he and Kerry are elected, Key said, Edwards will do the same at a national level.
"We need to get him in Washington now and help the American people," she said.
Edwards was expected to follow Wednesday night's speech with a breakfast visit to the North Carolina delegation Thursday.
Edwards, a former rival of Kerry's who fashioned an upbeat message during the primary fight, would not mention President Bush or Vice President Dick Cheney in his address, officials said. But his speech was to make no secret of his differences with the Republican ticket, and sought to bolster Kerry against criticism that he's not ready to be commander in chief.
Like a parade of speakers before him, Edwards pointed to Kerry's valorous service in the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago as evidence of the candidate's fitness to serve in the White House.
Earlier, Kerry arrived to the convention city aboard a water taxi with crewmates from his Vietnam swiftboat.
Those crewmates "saw up close what he's made of," Edwards said. "They saw him reach down and pull one of his men from the river and save his life. And in the heat of battle, they saw him decide in an instant to turn his boat around, drive it straight through an enemy position and chase down the enemy to save his crew."
"Decisive. Strong," Edwards said. "Aren't these the traits you want in a commander in chief?"
The many injured U.S. soldiers in Iraq "deserve a president who understands on the most personal level what they have gone through," Edwards said.
Kerry won three Purple Hearts in combat.
Edwards was being introduced by his wife, Elizabeth, who said in a text of her address: "We deserve leaders who allow their faith and moral core, our faiths and moral core, to draw us closer together, not drive us farther apart.
"We deserve leaders who believe in each of us," Elizabeth Edwards said.
John Edwards viewed his nationally televised prime-time acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention as an opportunity to introduce himself and Kerry to millions of Americans who know little about either.
Ahead of the address, Edwards said it would touch on the theme of "two Americas" -- one for the rich, the other for everyone else -- that became a staple of his stump speeches last winter during his unsuccessful but well-received bid for the Democratic nomination.
Edwards was Kerry's last major Democratic challenger to fold his campaign. He won but one primary -- South Carolina, where he was born -- but finished a strong second in many other states.
The 51-year-old Edwards said he wrote most of the speech himself in longhand on yellow legal pad, going through some 30 drafts, and he practiced it repeatedly.
Edwards' speaking style -- direct, without notes and with short sentences and simple words -- was honed over years as a plaintiffs' trial lawyer, helping him win one multimillion-dollar verdict after another. His 1998 Senate victory was his first try at elective office.
During the primary season, Edwards drew high approval ratings by projecting a sunny optimism and refraining from harsh attacks on his opponents.
"He'll be talking ... about the big themes of this campaign: optimism, searching for a better tomorrow that this nation has always represented," his wife said Wednesday morning on CBS-TV's "Early Show."
"He'll be talking a lot about Senator Kerry and the attributes that he brings and will bring to the office of the presidency," she said. "And he'll be talking about specifics of their plan to improve our safety and security and strength at home and abroad."
The candidate's wife -- a lawyer herself -- joined him early Wednesday for a podium and microphone check.
"It was actually a little less scary than I thought it would be when we got up there on the stage," she told CBS.
Many Democratic strategists see Edwards as offering strength in areas where Kerry is deemed to be weak -- support among rural and small-town voters, especially in the South; his upbeat personality and common touch.