PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Former U.S. Sen. John Edwards took another tentative step into the public spotlight Tuesday, speaking at Brown University about extreme poverty around the world and urging Americans to get involved in what he called a "fundamental moral issue."
Edwards, a two-time candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has struggled to get his message heard since a scandal about an affair he had with a former campaign staffer enveloped his personal life.
During 30 minutes of questions following Tuesday night's speech, just one person in the audience of nearly 600 came close to asking about the affair.
A student who said she organized for Edwards on campus and knocked on doors for him in New Hampshire asked whether politicians should be held to higher moral standards than the rest of the public.
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The question sent murmurs through the crowd.
"I don't think it’s for a candidate to decide what's appropriate," Edwards said. "It’s something for every American to decide for themselves."
He added: "I have my own view, which I'm going to keep to myself tonight."
He did not address the latest accusations about his past affair with former campaign staffer Rielle Hunter. The National Enquirer, citing unnamed sources, reports in its current issue that Edwards has told his wife, Elizabeth, that Hunter's 1-year-old daughter is his biological child.
Elizabeth Edwards, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, has a book coming out this spring entitled "Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities." The publisher, Random House, has described it as a "short, powerful, pocket-sized inspirational book," but has not indicated whether it will address the affair.
Edwards acknowledged the affair — though denied fathering Hunter's child — in an ABC interview last August. He all but disappeared until after the election, then made a speech in November to students at Indiana University for a reported fee of $35,000.
Edwards was invited to Brown as part of a student-run lecture series. Organizers did not disclose how much he was paid for the speech.
Edwards told Brown student journalists in a brief, private gathering before the speech that he would not answer questions about the affair.
Some observers say Edwards will have to tread carefully if he wants to re-emerge as a player in the national political debate.
Gary Pearce, a Democratic political consultant who ran Edwards' 1998 Senate campaign, said Edwards' options are to hope the ongoing cloud of scrutiny dissipates or subject himself to a public cross-examination.
He thinks Edwards should speak up.
"Long-term, that's what he has to do," Pearce said. "He has to tell the truth and hope that time heals all wounds if he wants to return to the public stage."
Scandal aside, Edwards can find a platform by positioning himself as a champion for the poor during the economic crisis, said Brown University political scientist Wendy Schiller.
"When you can voice a message the way John Edwards can, I think you can still remain relevant," Schiller said. "He should get on the trail, give speeches on populism, and make the case that even though he's got personal problems, he's still willing to advocate on behalf of those who can’t help themselves.”
In his half-hour speech, Edwards noted some of the ways in which he has spent time in the past six months. He talked of how his youngest children, Jack and Emma Claire, had their tonsils out. He described a December trip to a slum in Haiti and how he helped wrap the bodies of dead children.
Edwards mentioned Elizabeth once, answering a question about whether he would make health care coverage one of his top priorities.
Edwards said his wife speaks frequently about the inequalities of health care, and that she commands attention because of her struggles.
"I think my wife is a better voice on this than I am," he said.
Edwards ended to a standing ovation from the crowd, then ducked out a side door. He took no questions from the news media.