DES MOINES John Edwards is the son of a mill worker and "had to fight to survive."
"Literally," he says in his mad-as-hell, bare-knuckle stump speech. "Really."
But John Edwards not only survived, he prevailed. He became a wealthy lawyer, a U.S. senator, a vice presidential nominee and a two-time candidate for president.
So what is he so angry about?
His speeches are filled with harsh attacks on the current system, on giant corporations that make "billions and billions in profits" and CEOs who make "hundreds of millions of dollars" in salaries.
He says that average Americans must "rise up" and take power back, because the powerful interests who are exploiting the people will never "voluntarily give up their power."
"That is a complete fantasy," he says. "It will never happen."
The first time he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, he spoke in passionate, but far less harsh, tones. And the difference has not gone unnoticed.
This time, independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg recently wrote, "If Iowa Democrats choose Edwards, they are choosing anger, confrontation and class warfare."
Monday, I interviewed Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. I asked them if John was an angry man and, if so, why.
"What I am conveying," Edwards said, "is passion and energy. I am extraordinarily optimistic about what we can do for this country, but I deeply believe that corporate greed is doing great damage to the middle class."
"If we want to fulfill the promise of this country," he said, "we have to stand up."
Elizabeth Edwards said that her husband could be ferocious but that he was not angry.
"You see in him a passion and determination and even ferociousness in a sense, but not out-of-control anger," she said. "I've been with him for 30 years and I know what anger looks like on his face, and this isn't it. Obama thinks anger doesn't sell, so he says John is angry."
(Barack Obama recently said: "The argument goes that the only way to bring about change is to be angry. I don't need lectures about how to bring about change because I have been doing it all my life.")
I asked John Edwards if there is anything inherently wrong with corporations making large profits and people making large salaries.
"I embrace the idea of Americans being able to be successful, including extraordinarily successful, and working hard and doing well," he said. "I have lived that myself."
But, he added, "there is something inherently wrong with people and corporations with extraordinary wealth and influence using that against the interests of middle-class Americans."
Is Edwards' rise from humble roots not proof that there is economic mobility in American life under the current system?
"It absolutely proves that," he said, "but it is increasingly difficult to move the way I have moved. The barriers are higher and the difficulties greater."
So, as president, would he place a cap on the large corporate profits and large corporate salaries he complains about?
"There would be no caps. That would be contrary to free enterprise; I wouldn't do that," he said. "What I would do is equalize the voices of all Americans in a democracy."
The Iowa caucus will take place Thursday, and Edwards said that while he provides specific solutions to problems, he wants to leave a general impression in these closing days of the campaign.
"The critical thing for people to understand," he said, "is what I believe in a big-picture way: I don't want to see those with power and money tread on those who don't have it."
Elizabeth Edwards drew a direct comparison between her husband and Obama.
"There was a New York Times article fairly early in the race," she said. "It had a picture of Obama with an Afro that a lot of people had then, it was nice looking, not odd looking at Harvard Law School, being asked to voice an opinion at a meeting of people with respect to tenure for African-American professors. He spoke, and spoke eloquently, and when he left, both sides felt he agreed with them."
This was not a good sign, Elizabeth said. This was an example of when a "desire for conciliation becomes more important than getting a particular result."
She also said that being too conciliatory "is not what we need right now" and that "John believes we have to fight."
"What this country needs is someone who is ferocious and determined, committed and impassioned, and is not angry to do things, but committed to do things," she said.