Not-So-Dark Horse


By: Wall Street Journal

Edwards Stays Close in Iowa
By CHRISTOPHER COOPER

IOWA CITY, Iowa — With the two top Democratic candidates going after each other in recent weeks, it has been easy to forget the Hawkeye state remains a three-way race for the party’s presidential nomination.

John Edwards, trailing badly in the money race and in national polls, remains well within striking distance of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton here. A second- or first-place finish for him on Jan. 3 could shake up the field in the states that follow.

The former North Carolina senator and vice presidential candidate is the only one of the three who has actually been through the Iowa-caucus season before, finishing a surprising second in 2004.

Currently rolling through corn country on a “Main Street Express” bus tour, Mr. Edwards has curbed his rhetoric, returning to kitchen-table economic issues such as health care and tax reform. For the bus tour, which has drawn healthy, if not supersized, crowds, Mr. Edwards has recruited actor Tim Robbins to juice the audience. “I’m not Oprah,” Mr. Robbins jokes, a self-deprecating reference to the talk-show diva, who turned out huge crowds for Mr. Obama. Actor Kevin Bacon will join the tour this weekend.

The dust-ups between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton over kindergarten aspirations, past drug use and whether First Ladyhood qualifies as presidential experience are getting more intense and personal as the caucus approaches. On Thursday, according to people who witnessed it, the two exchanged hard words during a chance meeting on the tarmac outside the Des Moines airport.

It was Mr. Edwards who was first seen as the field’s most strident attacker. He blasted Mrs. Clinton for months for her refusal to reject special-interest money and for her evolving stances on immigration reform and the Iraq war. He took subtler digs at Mr. Obama, mocking the Illinois senator for his pledge to put industry and lobbyists and politicians “around a big table” to hash out proposals on health care and issues including global warming.

“It is a fantasy,” Mr. Edwards said of the idea that business would agree on such issues as fuel-efficiency standards and lower prescription prices. “We have an epic fight in front of us.”

But Mr. Edwards has largely put away the knives recently, turning his focus back to the well-honed populist message that originally drove his campaign. It is a workingman’s message that promises to give Corporate America a pounding and to stand up for the little guy by giving “everyone in this room the same chances that I had.” The rhetoric from the wealthy trial lawyer is a hard-core Democratic message designed to appeal to union members and old-style liberals who may chafe at the more mainstream proposals from Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton.

More than the message, however, Mr. Edwards seems to be benefiting from the most potent force in politics: good timing. While the Clinton and Obama camps battle each other, Mr. Edwards’s national spokesman cranks out happy news about his candidate. “The spirit of our campaign,” read one email sent out Thursday by the spokesman, Eric Schultz. It contained a link from the Burlington Hawkeye newspaper about an Iowa supporter who walks 6.1 miles home after work each day, carrying an Edwards campaign sign.

On his bus tour, Mr. Edwards is touting his electability, working into his stump speech the results of a recent CNN poll that showed him faring better against top Republicans than either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton. Some political operatives have suggested that a white male Southerner may fare better than a black man or a white woman with voters. People with Mr. Obama’s campaign wonder if Mr. Edwards is projecting this message subtly when he says he’s the only candidate who can win Southern states.

“No. Nada,” counters Mr. Schultz. “There’s none of that stuff.” Mr. Edwards routinely tells audiences that if they are voting on the basis of race or gender, he doesn’t want their support.

Among the top Democrats, Mr. Edwards still stands the longest odds. His national organization is substantially smaller than those of rivals. He doesn’t lead in polling in any state that has been surveyed. He has a small fraction of the money of his chief rivals. He lacks the establishment imprimatur that gooses the campaigns of Mrs. Clinton and even Mr. Obama.

But Mr. Edwards has spent six years of working the farms and small towns of Iowa — a virtually uninterrupted string of campaigning that started when he began running for president in 2002. He has a bank of seasoned supporters that polls consistently show are more likely to turn out on caucus night, even if the weather is poor.

Indeed, Mr. Edwards seems to be hoping for a winter storm. When the first day of his bus tour was halted by a savage ice storm that paralyzed the state, he emerged on the trail the following day, marveling at the weather and thanking people who showed up for his rallies despite it.

“We can sort of feel the snow and the cold and the ice,” Mr. Edwards said. “It feels like caucus season to me.”

Write to Christopher Cooper at christopher.cooper@wsj.com

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