The last time I saw John Edwards in person was in South Carolina in 2004 on the presidential primary campaign trail. On a daylong tour of the state, I remember he did best at a barbecue joint in Kingstree in the heart of the economically depressed Pee Dee region, where he wowed a multi-racial group of public school teachers, Democratic Party activists, clergy and single moms with his talk of the two Americas.

I missed that crowd the other night when I saw the former senator in New York City. He was speaking to a very different gathering–mostly white, mostly Yankee, a real “blue state” bunch at the New School for Social Research in the heart of Manhattan’s West Village.

Edwards was on a panel with the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich and Princeton Professor Katherine Newman, discussing the vanishing American middle class. In his dark suit and blue tie, he drew the most questions, though not the most applause (that went to Newman for her tart rejoinders to the panel’s lone conservative, Stephen Moore of The Wall Street Journal). Edwards seemed a tad impatient with this bookish audience and its opinion-spouting lines at the open microphones. He was polite but not exactly warm; direct but just short of inspiring.

Here’s what else I noticed:

  • He’s still using his personal narrative as the son of Southern mill workers to great effect–though he deftly avoids the part where he becomes a wealthy trial lawyer.
  • The influence of ACORN and other lefty organizations he’s been hanging with shows in his calls for a livable wage, unionization and reform of the tax code to reward “work instead of wealth.”
  • He’s got a new take (or is it old?) on the “moral values” crusade, insisting that the fight to end poverty “says something about our character” as Americans.
  • People still underestimate his smarts and seem surprised when he flashes a little knife along with that extra roomy smile.
  • I wanted to know what more he would do about rebuilding the Gulf Coast–a critical fit with the issues the panel had been debating all evening: class, economic prosperity/decline, inequality. When I buttonholed Edwards to ask, he was supportive but vague. “I’ve spoken about that. I’m not in the Senate now. If I run for president, I will work on that.”

    He brushed past the professorial New School types bearing down on him to focus on a middle-aged couple who told him they were clear examples of the middle-class squeeze, having recently been laid off from white-collar jobs.

    “A-maaa-zing,” he told them, looking deep into their eyes.

    Surprisingly, nobody at the microphones had asked the most obvious question: Will Edwards run for president in 2008? That query came in a private moment, as an audience member grabbed him briefly before he headed out the door.

    “We’re working on that,” was all Edwards would say. Then, he hustled outside and hopped into the passenger seat of a waiting rental car that sped off into a sea of yellow taxis.