The only Democrat in a race packed with Republicans, Edwards will almost certainly advance to the second round. (Louisiana's "jungle primary" system, which Edwards himself installed as governor in 1975, dictates that all candidates enter an open election in November and, if no one surpasses 50 percent of the vote, the top two compete in a December runoff.) But once he makes it to the second round, he is almost unanimously considered a lock to lose. "He will get crushed … and the only person who really gets anything out of it is Edwards, because he doesn't really want to win, he just wants the attention," longtime Louisiana Democratic political operative Robert Mann wrote me in an email.
Still, Edwards retains a kind of mystique that makes him impossible to ignore. "He's hard to beat, man, I'm telling you," says Roemer, the only person ever to defeat Edwards in an election. (Edwards avenged the loss by defeating Roemer four years later.) "He's not going to be a pushover this time. It would surprise me if he didn't have a battle plan. I haven't seen it yet, and I don't know what it is, but I wouldn't assume just because I was a new face and a Republican in a conservative district that he would be an easy opponent."
After the delay on the highway, Edwards arrived at the crawfish festival to a hero's welcome. One woman asked him to sign a matted copy of an April 2000 Times-Picayune article on his trial. "It's been in a den just waiting for the opportunity," she said. "It hurt when he went down."
As Edwards entered the fenced-off judging area, a tall, well-built man greeted the former governor with a handshake and a warm smile. I followed him back to his table and asked him how he knew Edwards. "We did time together," he said. I wasn't sure if he was joking.
It turned out he was Oliver Thomas, former president of the New Orleans City Council, who, having pleaded guilty to bribery charges, joined Edwards at the Oakdale Federal Correctional Institution in 2009. He and everyone else in prison called Edwards "Guv."
"Poverty in prison is a big issue, and it doesn't get talked about," Thomas told me. "Anytime anyone new came to the prison, Guv always put together a care package—hygiene products. It was, if you need deodorant, soap, shower sandals—here it is. Some guys in prison didn't come in with anything. Guv's humanity was always bigger than his politics." (Edwards: "I wasn't supposed to do that, but I did it. They had nothing.")
"I'll never forget a conversation he had with some muckety-muck white-collar guys," Thomas continued. "They said, 'Guv, you ought to hang with us, not those guys,' and he said, basically, 'Shut up,' but his language was harsher. He would hang out with white, black, Hispanic, some of the Vietnamese gang members from New Orleans .… I wish everyone in politics would go to prison—they'd be much closer to the people, not so removed. What do we know about a lot of politicians who shine their halo? Guv's been there, done that."