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updated 10/17/2007 2:59:58 PM ET 2007-10-17T18:59:58

John Edwards came to this Civil War town, 40 miles southwest of Paducah, to fulfill a promise and to make a point. Columbus, whose population would barely fill a movie theater, had won an online contest, defeating such cities as Los Angeles and Seattle, for the right to host an Edwards campaign visit.

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Arriving right on time, the former senator from North Carolina stepped out of his rented minivan. The crowd of 2,000 roared. "In my lifetime there's never been a presidential candidate that's come down here to these river counties," said Bill Ferguson, 69, of nearby Arlington.

Edwards spoke on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River near where the Ohio River feeds into it. "Rural America is who I am, part of who I am," he said, twice. "I know who you are. I care about what you care about."

And although he did not say so explicitly, his presence said something else for him: Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton would not campaign here, because she can't carry Columbus, and neither can Barack Obama.

If it seems strange that the candidate who concedes his ideas are more "progressive" -- meaning "liberal" -- than those of his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination would rest his final argument on electability, welcome to the wild, unpredictable primary season. Edwards -- who is running a distant third in national polls, is tied for second in Iowa, and is third in New Hampshire -- was expected by many observers to have disappeared by now.

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When the exuberant and iconoclastic Obama entered the contest, Edwards's candidacy was supposed to collapse like a house of cards. Many of the aides who helped Edwards in 2004 had quit. His wife, Elizabeth, revealed this spring that her breast cancer has spread to her bones. The fundraising of Clinton and Obama dwarfed Edwards's. All the elites -- the news media, the rivals, and especially the political consulting class in Washington -- assumed that Edwards's candidacy would not be viable with Obama in the race.

But here Edwards is, drawing 2,000 people in a tiny Kentucky town, winning second looks from the national press and outperforming Obama in Democratic debates and in the critical kickoff state of Iowa, even though Obama has spent more than $3 million there on biographical television ads.

Edwards acknowledges that Clinton -- who at 42 percent is a whopping 33 points ahead of him in the latest Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs national poll -- "is beating me right now." Even in private conversations, he has no illusions that he has sold his party on his candidacy. Iowa remains Edwards's must-win state, but Obama's campaign is building a massive organization there, one that its architect, Steve Hildebrand, estimates is four times as strong as anything else he has ever seen in the state. Obama is still a bigger draw: He attracts more press attention, he has twice as much money to spend as Edwards, and, in many ways, his biography better intersects with this moment in time.

For encouragement, Edwards looks to history. He hopes that 2008 will turn into another 1984, when Gary Hart intruded into a contest featuring an establishment candidate (former Vice President Mondale) and a beloved outsider (Sen. John Glenn) and almost won. Or another 1976, when Jimmy Carter surprised the field by winning Iowa. Or even another 2004, although Edwards casts himself in a different role this time -- that of John Kerry, the steady hand who vanquished the front-runner.

"I can't eliminate the experience I lived through in 2004," Edwards told National Journal, "which was that Howard Dean was running away with the race at this point and everything shifted in the last 30 days, largely based on a combination of me having a clear message, the 'Two Americas' message, and the electability issue. And I think people wanted to win, and they got worried [about] whether Howard Dean could win" the White House.

The pointed message
His "clear message" in this cycle is directed at Clinton. Since the beginning of August, Edwards has sharpened it to a point: She represents the hidebound, sclerotic Washington establishment; he has never taken a dime of lobbyist money. She would solve problems incrementally; he would solve them aggressively. Obama has also claimed that message terrain. But Edwards has generally been bolder in staking it out. Last weekend, Clinton was twice confronted by voters -- none of them plants -- who asked her tough questions about Iran and Iraq. Those questions were originally voiced not by Obama but by Edwards.

Edwards likes to say Clinton's name when criticizing her. Obama is much less direct. In a speech last month to politically savvy members of the Service Employees International Union, Obama's call for "transparency" in reforming health care was an anti-Clinton slam that seemed to go over the heads of his audience. He meant it as a reference to the secrecy surrounding her 1993 health care effort.

By contrast, Edwards jumps at every opportunity to criticize the former first lady. Last week, when news accounts revealed that a company run by Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, had advised Blackwater USA, the controversial soldier-for-hire firm, Edwards called Clinton a "corporate Democrat." When a homeland-security lobby held a fundraiser for Clinton, Edwards adviser Joe Trippi called her "corrupt." Edwards even claims to see daylight where there is just dawn. At the last Democratic debate, Edwards accused Clinton of not wanting to end combat missions in Iraq; Clinton had said previously that the U.S. would need to keep troops in that Middle East country for surgical counter-terrorist missions. As it turns out, so had Edwards. The only distinction: He would station troops outside Iraq and send them in as necessary, whereas in a Clinton presidency, more troops would be stationed at safe garrisons inside the country.

"I wanted voters to know there are serious differences between me and Senator Clinton," Edwards said later. "I think that voters are entitled to know those differences. That's the starting place."

Throughout the year, the Edwards campaign has been pressing Clinton to explain how she will overcome questions about her electability. In one sense, the questions are unfair. National polls indicate that Clinton would handily defeat every potential Republican nominee and that Democrats consider her their strongest general election possibility. What's more, few Democrats are willing to predict on the record that she would hurt their party's down-ballot candidates.

Yet over the next few months, Edwards plans to make the case that with him at the top of the ticket, Democrats can win enough Senate and House seats to build filibuster-proof majorities. "The reality is, it's not enough to win the White House. If Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, does it help or hurt candidates down the ticket toward this particular goal? I don't want to be a political analyst, but you've seen the same data I have ... ," Edwards says, his voice trailing off. "I know that I can go anyplace in America and campaign. I can go anywhere because, what I stand for, the way I grew up, because of my message, I can compete and help Democrats down the ballot."

On the trail, Edwards works hard to convince voters that he is for real -- that questions about the authenticity of his populism are driven by a know-nothing political elite. The news media have spent an inordinate amount of time covering what his campaign refers to as the "Three H's" -- his grooming habits, his enormous house, and his hedge-fund connection. A recent news analysis by respected AP political reporter Ron Fournier was headlined, "Is Edwards Real or a Phony?"

At a question-and-answer session with 100 undecided voters in Portsmouth, N.H., last week, Edwards asked the audience not to "read the crap you read in the newspaper. Judge me based on what you actually see." Answering questions is an Edwards forte, and in New Hampshire he routinely takes questions at campaign stops. When his advance staff failed to include Q&A time at a major rally last month, Edwards acidly told an aide, "Well, then we don't do rallies."

Edwards remarked to National Journal, "When I'm in Iowa or New Hampshire, people will say to me, 'Senator Obama was here last week, gave a speech, and left. Didn't take questions.' People want to see you working at it. People want to see you earn it."

The issue of electability
Edwards's performance on the stump has kept him in the race. How do moderate and conservative voters in Iowa listen to Edwards -- who promises to raise taxes to fund health care, who wants to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050, who proposes new anti-poverty and education programs -- and come away with the feeling that he will attract nonliberal voters in the rest of the country?

Edwards says that his Southern accent helps him connect with rural voters even outside the South: "A lot of people know I grew up in a rural setting in a working-class family. And, in a way, that makes them feel like I understand their lives."

Steven Ray, a corn and soybean farmer and an assistant volunteer fire chief in Columbus, listened to Edwards last week and could not pinpoint a specific policy he liked. But, Ray said, "If he'll come to Columbus, he's for small towns." Besides, Ray added, "I'm not ready to vote for a woman or a black man yet."

Advisers to Clinton and Obama have accused Edwards of quietly spreading the idea that the country isn't ready to elect a woman or a black man to the presidency. Asked to explain precisely why Clinton, in particular, has electability problems, Edwards paused for a full 25 seconds before answering.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm not honestly sure I could articulate what it is. I think I'd be speculating. My guess is, it's a whole bunch of things." (Elizabeth Edwards has been less circumspect: Clinton would "energize" Republicans, she said, and brings too much baggage -- most of it unfair -- from the 1990s.) What John Edwards repeatedly says is that he brings a clear message and a clear path to victory.

Recent polls suggest that Edwards's highly defined message might be too pointed for an electorate accustomed to voting on the basis of attributes. Clinton's advisers think that a sharply anti-war message appeals to educated, high-income Democrats; they contend that Edwards's plan to immediately withdraw 50,000 U.S. troops strikes lower-income voters -- those who might otherwise be receptive to Edwards's economic message -- as too risky. Lower-income voters are also more attracted to candidates offering experience and a strong resume.

The result is that Edwards's message may be too clear. Educated, upper-income Democrats don't care much about his anti-poverty crusade, and lower-income, less-educated Democrats are concerned that he lacks the experience to end the war responsibly. Clinton's strategy team also thinks that Edwards's economic message alienates poorer Democrats by casting them as combatants in a class war. Most voters still hear Edwards's "Two Americas" message even though he has abandoned that construct in favor of a more aspirational, less class-conscious argument.

In Iowa, Edwards's numbers have slipped -- from highs exceeding 30 percent before this year began to a still-respectable 23 percent, according to the latest state poll. He has lost support among women, mostly to Clinton. Of the three leading candidates, he polls the worst among young voters. Obama holds a clear edge there.

Unlike Clinton, who appeals to women and to downscale Democrats, or Obama, who appeals disproportionately to young, wealthy, and educated voters, Edwards draws support and opposition fairly evenly. A recent Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll of prospective Iowa caucus-goers gave him a strong edge among voters in labor union households. His bread-and-butter economic message doesn't appeal to Democrats making less than $40,000 a year; he does better among Democrats who make more than $60,000. His support does not differ much by education level, by ideology, or even by age. He pulls about 20 percent of both white Protestants and white Catholics. He does the best in suburban areas of Iowa; Clinton, inexplicably to Edwards's team because she has not visited as many rural counties, does better in the exurbs and beyond.

But Edwards's aides insist they are comfortable, in general, with the Iowa trends. The former senator does his best among voters ages 45 to 64, according to public polling and the campaign's own surveys. Edwards has been ruled out, according to the Iowa poll, by the lowest percentage of Democrats: Only 28 percent of respondents said they wouldn't vote for him under any circumstances. In contrast, 37 percent said that Obama's lack of experience was a "major" obstacle to their supporting him. Forty-six percent said that controversies over the "Three H's" will not be a factor in their consideration of whether to support Edwards.

As Edwards's strategists debate fuzzy topics like media and message, Jennifer O'Malley, his Iowa state director, is working to achieve a more mundane goal: to find top-quality precinct captains for all 2,600 of the state's caucus wards. Edwards's campaign thinks it has recruited more than any of its rivals. When Edwards comes to the state, O'Malley makes sure that he visits such places as Cresco, which is comparatively vote-rich, according to the unusual math of the caucuses. On October 5, he answered questions from a crowd of about 125 at a lumberyard there.

Last week, Edwards stunned his competition and many supporters by announcing that for the primaries he will accept federal matching funds and the accompanying caps on what he can spend per state and nationally. Edwards's advisers say that he had no choice: The campaign needs to have more than $15 million in the bank in January to be competitive. Rival campaigns whispered that Edwards's consultants have led him astray. Markos Moulitsas, the influential blogger whose beat is political strategy, went ballistic when he heard the news. The prospect of Edwards's nomination had suddenly become "dangerous" because he had agreed to abide by a national cap of about $50 million on what he could spend through the party's late-August national convention. Republicans could pound away relentlessly all next summer, Moulitsas argued.

Edwards's advisers concede that taking federal funds is a gamble. Aides are looking into novel interpretations of federal law that would allow Edwards to start raising and spending money for the general election after securing enough delegate pledges to win the nomination -- in February, that is. Courts might take years sorting out whether his campaign acted properly.

Edwards insists, "I made the [financing] decision.... I think it's the right decision. You know as well as I do that there's going to be massive free media coverage when I am ... the Democratic nominee. The party can do spending. There are independent groups that can't connect with the campaign but can do spending. I honestly think it's going to be fine."

In one sense, the financing decision reflects the biggest change that Edwards has made since 2004. This time, he's running to win the nomination first, before thinking about the general election.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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