The hair was still TV-anchor perfect, the blue-eyed squint as dreamy as ever. But the famously gaudy grin was largely absent on December 27 when John Edwards booted up his second run for President from the backyard of Orelia Tyler’s flood-wrecked home in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward. With no notes, no teleprompter and a microphone that kept threatening to fritz out, Edwards stood starkly alone, framed from most camera angles by only a bare tree and a corpse-gray midwinter sky, talking in spare and straightforward terms about a massive national recommitment to fighting poverty and reviving the middle class. We need to get our hands dirty, said Edwards, who’d helped clean up Tyler’s yard the day before.

The symbolism was unmissable. In 2004 Edwards’s wing-and-a-prayer candidacy was propelled by much the same “happy populism” that won Bill Clinton the White House in 1992. The one-term senator from North Carolina constantly invoked his inspiring rise from humble roots as a mill worker’s son and offered a compelling diagnosis of the “Two Americas” created by economic inequities. But his prescriptions for solving the problem were as threadbare as his foreign-policy expertise. After an often bitter experience as John Kerry’s running mate in 2004, Edwards came away disgusted by the safe, poll-tested politics he had once embraced. “In our effort to be elected,” he told me in 2005, “we’ve become minimalists, tinkering around the edges–our tax cut is better than yours, we’ll have smaller class sizes. That’s not what the country wants. There’s a hunger to be about a big moral cause–a moral cause that’s bigger than our own self-interest.”

In New Orleans, Edwards sketched out a purpose-driven politics aimed at combating economic injustices and human atrocities both at home and abroad in places like Uganda and Sudan. “We need to ask Americans to be…patriotic about something beyond war,” he said. With considerable input from his campaign chief, powerful former Congressman David Bonior of Michigan, Edwards is rolling out an ambitious plan for universal health insurance while calling for a new spin on Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” creating a million federally funded jobs with nonprofit or government agencies and making the first year of college free for kids from poor families. Unblinking about his “mistake” of voting to authorize the Iraq War, Edwards calls for the immediate withdrawal of 40,000 to 50,000 troops and a major reorientation of foreign policy. “You can’t lead through raw power,” he said. The world needs “to see our better angels again.”

Edwards’s harder-edged populism could be ideally attuned to the political moment. It’s certainly a message well suited to the insurgent’s campaign Edwards must wage against the Hillary Clinton cash machine and Barack Obama’s big-media bandwagon. Barnstorming with labor groups for minimum-wage initiatives last year, Edwards poured the foundation for an old-fashioned ground war–something that Bonior, a longtime champion of middle-class and labor interests, is famous for. And with his aggressive and innovative online campaign, Edwards aims to be Dean 2.0, the next generation of netroots politicking.

Even in 2004 Edwards showed a certain fearlessness about delivering bad news. “Two Americas,” after all, ain’t exactly an upper. With fewer catchphrases and more frank talk this time, Edwards hopes to catch the fancy of voters looking for a sea change from the surreal Bush years. The country needs blue skies, it’s true, but the more pressing need is for a President capable of doing what Gerald Ford did in 1975, when he lumbered into his first State of the Union address and grimly, bracingly declared, “The state of the union is not good.”