(Fixes fifth paragraph to make clear punishments were for each count)
* Two unsuccessful runs for presidential nomination
* Despite wealth, campaigned as "champion for regular people"
* Son of mill workers, first in family to attend college
By Colleen Jenkins
May 31 (Reuters) - As a highly successful lawyer and a fast-rising politician, John Edwards grew accustomed to people voting for him.
With his boyish looks and a sincere demeanor, he won enough jurors' votes in courtrooms to become a multimillionaire as one of the top personal injury lawyers in the nation. In 1998, in his first political campaign, voters sent Edwards to Washington as a senator from North Carolina. Six years later he was the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee.
But Edwards' fortunes would tumble in 2008 as he admitted that he had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife, Elizabeth, during his second presidential campaign. His star was further diminished by an indictment in June 2011 on federal campaign finance charges.
Edwards, 58, chose to fight allegations that he schemed to use nearly $1 million from two supporters to hush up his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter and her pregnancy with his child.
He faced high stakes by maintaining his innocence and standing trial but won on Thursday when a jury acquitted him on one of the six counts against him and declared itself deadlocked on the other five. If convicted, Edwards could have been sentenced to up to five years and fined $250,000 on each count.
Edwards, the first in his family to go to college, had long believed in the U.S. justice system.
"The 12 souls who spend full days, full weeks, or sometimes long months sitting only a few feet from you get to know you almost as well as you know yourself," he wrote in his 2004 book, "Four Trials."
"My faith in the wisdom of ordinary people took root in the mill towns of my youth. But the juries of my adulthood deepened that faith."
Those juries gave Edwards, the son of a small-town mill worker, and his clients a string of huge damage awards against corporations and hospitals. His political debut was equally successful as he upset incumbent Republican Senator Lauch Faircloth.
EYES ON THE WHITE HOUSE
Edwards chose not to seek a second Senate term so that he could focus on running for president in 2004, and he entered the primary elections as a potential fresh face for Democrats. Despite his wealth, Edwards campaigned as "a champion for regular people" who did not like the idea of "two Americas" - one for the wealthy and one for those struggling to get ahead.
Edwards was the last major challenger to Senator John Kerry and once Kerry secured the Democratic nomination, he chose Edwards to be his vice presidential running mate in hopes of bringing a jolt of energy and charisma to the tight race to unseat President George W. Bush.
In the end, Kerry and Edwards fell short but many observers said Edwards held his own during the vice presidential debate with Dick Cheney, an experienced Washington insider.
The exposure and experience Edwards gained as the vice presidential candidate in 2004 prompted him to be one of the first Democrats to enter the 2008 presidential race.
This time running as an outsider, Edwards picked up where he left off by stressing the need to help the underprivileged and impoverished. To appeal to the anti-war wing of the party, he apologized for his 2002 vote authorizing the war in Iraq.
Edwards was well received in some early primary and caucus states but still ran third in most national polls to then-senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
WIFE'S CANCER RETURNS
Elizabeth Edwards had been diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2004 the day after the Kerry ticket was defeated by Bush. The 2008 presidential race was only a few months old when Edwards announced that his wife was again suffering from cancer - this time an incurable form. Despite months of treatment ahead, the one-time law school sweethearts agreed he should stay in the race.
Testimony at Edwards' campaign finance trial made clear another personal drama was going on away from the campaign spotlight.
Edwards had begun an affair with Hunter after meeting her at a New York City hotel in February 2006. She became pregnant with his child in 2007, setting in motion a cover-up that included money from supporters Rachel "Bunny" Mellon and Fred Baron being used to support Hunter.
Dogged by rumors and tabloid newspaper coverage of the affair, disappointing showings in early-state nominating contests and criticism over $400 haircuts, Edwards suspended his presidential campaign in January 2008.
Prosecution witnesses said Edwards wanted the Hunter affair kept quiet to hide it from his wife and because he still had ambitions of being named the vice presidential candidate, attorney general or a Supreme Court justice.
In August 2008 Edwards admitted the relationship with Hunter but did not concede paternity of their child until January 2010. That came just ahead of the release of a book by former aide Andrew Young, who said that at Edwards' request he had falsely claimed responsibility for the child and let Hunter live with him and his wife.
The Edwardses separated after 32 years of marriage, and Elizabeth died Dec. 7, 2010.
The couple's 30-year-old daughter Cate, the oldest of their three surviving children, accompanied her father to court most days during his trial in Greensboro, North Carolina, about an hour's drive from the Chapel Hill home where he lives with his school-aged children Emma Claire and Jack.
The Edwardses' teenage son, Wade, died in a 1996 car crash.
Quinn, the 4-year-old daughter from Edwards' affair, lives with Hunter in Charlotte. Hunter's spokeswoman would not discuss the status of her relationship with Edwards but said the former senator sees his child often.
"They raise their daughter together," spokeswoman RoseMarie Terenzio said. (Additional reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Bill Trott)