“Together,” the voice of John Edwards was saying, “we are going to change this country.” Up on the stage, the big screen was showing the Edwards campaign video, still-lifes of his bid to be president in a year when it just wasn’t to be. Peeking through a curtain from the side, the candidate himself looked–interested? Pleased. He looked pleased.

A few moments later, Edwards bounded into the gym at Broughton High School in Raleigh to end his presidential race, and if he was not the happiest fella in the world right then, you’d never have guessed it. People talk all the time about his rock-star quality. It’s true. Oh, sure, it was Broughton, where John and Elizabeth Edwards are just good people, and where everybody knows the story of their children–and still talk about how Wade, at 16, could’ve died in that car crash when he wasn’t drinking or anything like that. So, yes, 1,000 students and friends and Democrats were there, and the sound system was cranking. But the electricity was all John, because he never has to remind himself to smile, and his smile is legendary.

“All my life, America has smiled at me, and today, I am smiling right back,” Edwards said, his hands upraised. He has this way of being modest and triumphant at the same time. It’s a gift. The crowd roared its approval.

No account of Edwards’ campaign would be complete without a reminder about his Sept. 19, 2002, op-ed column in the Washington Post. In it, he called on Congress to “endorse the use of all necessary means to eliminate the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.” He went on to say that while President Bush should “rally” the international community, “we should not tie our own hands by requiring Security Council action.”

It was a foolish position, first, because it was so premature–Bush had only just gone to the United Nations the week before–and second, because it guilelessly trusted that Bush would act with restraint when it should have been clear he was bent on war.

Chalk it up to Edwards’ inexperience. But then you are brought to the question of whether he should have run for president at all, given how little experience he had and the fact that he gave up his Senate seat to do it. No doubt he was right that he couldn’t be taken seriously for president and still cling to a possible re-election campaign. But is John Edwards bigger than our Senate seat? Seeing him at Broughton, it was hard to say that he isn’t.

“He’ll be president some day,” said Mary Ann Olsen, who lives close enough to the Edwards that she dropped her campaign contribution in their mailbox. “And I’m a psychologist. I can tell about people.” She was smiling, too.

Heck, everybody was smiling. After such a dismal start to his campaign, Edwards had done his Raleigh friends proud by managing to do two seemingly contradictory things at once: He painted a portrait of a country in serious trouble, and at the same time he embodied the idea that it’s not beyond our fixing.

We have two Americas, Edwards said. We’re divided by race. We’re divided by wealth. And it’s getting worse. A clear analysis, and Edwards put it across with unflagging passion, notwithstanding that his solutions were rudimentary. The national press was taken with a candidate who actually talked about poverty–imagine that! North Carolina, especially, was treated to a brand of progressive politics not heard since young Terry Sanford. It was intoxicating.

Yes, but about that Senate seat. Elizabeth Dole is sitting in the other one, and Richard Burr, a nicer version of Tom DeLay, is out to make both of our senators Republicans. “Yeah,” agreed Laura Edwards (no relation) of Chapel Hill, it was a big price to pay. “And probably he would win it in a landslide now that people have had a chance to see him in action.”

That, answered Raleigh political consultant Perry Woods, is wishful thinking. No Democrat has won a Senate race in North Carolina in a presidential election year since Sam Ervin in 1968. Edwards, absent the electrifying effects of his own presidential campaign, might have lost to Burr anyway, Woods thinks. But because Edwards did run, and did give voice–and heart–to the progressive cause, Democrat Erskine Bowles has a good chance of beating Burr.

“Edwards,” Woods said, “had to do what he did to make the seat winnable.”

The Kerry-Edwards signs pointed to another thing that would probably help.