Image: John Edwards, Barack Obama
Steven Senne  /  AP
Presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John Edwards before the televised debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., on Saturday night.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 1/8/2008 12:36:15 AM ET 2008-01-08T05:36:15

Imagine a whole new race for the Democratic presidential nomination: a two-man contest between the 2004 vice presidential nominee, John Edwards, and the rookie phenomenon of 2008, Sen. Barack Obama.

If Hillary Clinton were to suffer a defeat of large proportions on Tuesday night in the New Hampshire primary, and if her star were to fade in the succeeding contests in Nevada and South Carolina, she might either quit the race or cease to be a dominant factor.

Edwards would remain as the only person standing between Obama and the Democratic presidential nomination.

Edwards and his strategists are already planning for a two-man contest.

Elizabeth Edwards, the candidate’s wife and most outspoken campaign advocate, pressed the critique of Obama on Monday at a stop in Bedford, N.H.

“Sen. Obama, when he was in the state Senate in Illinois, took money from the health insurance industry at the same time that he was suggesting an amendment that was favorable to the health insurance industry and was unfavorable to the people of the Illinois,” she told a small crowd.

She also slammed Obama for having a lobbyist as co-chairman of his New Hampshire campaign.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton said in response to Edwards that Obama "has done more than any candidate in this race to curb the influence of money and lobbyists in the political process and, as president, he will institute some of the most sweeping ethics reforms the executive branch has ever seen." 

'A superhuman rocket ship'?
Joe Trippi, who piloted Howard Dean’s candidacy four years ago and now serves as a strategist for Edwards, has the experience of seeing one candidate, Dean, implode.

Some in the Clinton camp think sooner or later Obama, too, will implode.

If so, Edwards would be there to benefit.

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“I grant you, one scenario is that this guy (Obama) is a superhuman rocket ship that is never going to come down,” Trippi said as Edwards spoke to a rally in Hampton on Monday night. “The other scenario is that every time you have had one of these rockets go off, every time it becomes clear this guy is about to be the nominee, everybody steps back and reassesses it.”

Slideshow: New Hampshire votes “On Wednesday morning, people will wake up and say, ‘Jeez, this guy (Obama) is going to be our nominee,’” Trippi said. At that point, Trippi said, a closer examination will occur: “The world is going to say, who the hell is this guy?”

He acknowledges that Obama would start on Wednesday morning with a substantial advantage, having won Iowa and New Hampshire.

“For a year everybody was told this contest is between him (Obama) and her (Clinton),” Trippi argued. “And during that year, the national audience has learned quite a bit about him, most of it amazingly good: amazing speaker, incredibly inspirational — and yet where is he nationally? He’s at 25 percent. The Rasmussen Poll, which is the only national one I’ve seen since Iowa, has him at 25. I’ll tell you why: They have massive doubts about this guy — on their own.”

In other words, even without advertising from Edwards pointing out flaws in the Obama image or record, many Democratic voters have doubts about Obama.

“If you were going to fall under his spell, wouldn’t you have done it by now?” asked Trippi.

Seventy percent of the Iowa Democratic vote went against Clinton last week, but another way of reading the same data is that 62 percent voted against Obama and 70 percent voted against Edwards.

If Clinton were to exit the race, Edwards would have the opportunity to go head to head with Obama. Edwards is the veteran of dozens of debates from the 2004 race against his Democratic rivals and of one tough debate against Vice President Dick Cheney.

Obama has had the experience of this year’s debates against his rivals, plus a very easy Senate race in 2004 against the conservative Alan Keyes.

Edwards has liabilities
Of course if it does turn into an Edwards-Obama one-on-one event, Edwards has his own liabilities for his foe to exploit, such as his vote for the 2000 China free trade deal, a vote that stands in glaring contrast to his rhetoric today on the campaign trail.

Video: Showing her soft side And why would Edwards making specific arguments against Obama be any more effective than Clinton has been in making them in recent days?

“That’s simple: Clinton is the Establishment; she is the status quo,” Trippi said. “If you want change and it’s Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, you vote for Barack Obama every time.”

Trippi acknowledges that there are many Obama supporters who feel a deep, passionate commitment, one that can’t be shaken by critiques of his record.

But he argued that “there is no evidence that the other 62 percent of the electorate views Obama in any way but through logical argument.”

Looking beyond New Hampshire to the Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses, at one point pundits thought the powerful Culinary Workers union in Nevada would back Edwards. But it has not.

Trippi painted this Nevada scenario for Edwards, Obama and Clinton:

“If Obama is the winner here (in New Hampshire), he’s likely to get the Culinary Workers in Nevada; if he gets Culinary Workers in Nevada, there’s no way she’s going to win Nevada. So she loses Nevada. The one thing I can guarantee you is that if we stay in, there’s no way she wins South Carolina. There’s no way she can win,” Trippi said.

All in all, a gloomy scenario for Clinton.

Figuring out 'Super Tuesday'
But if she were to go into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests in 23 states with four straight losses — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and the Jan. 26 South Carolina primary — so, too, would Edwards — unless he can pull off a win in South Carolina.

Even if Edwards wins South Carolina, Obama is still likely to have a cash advantage for Feb. 5.

The Super Tuesday contests are so numerous, so far flung and include such expensive media markets — California, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York, among others — that no candidate will have enough cash, Trippi argued.

Any campaign manager would rather be in Obama’s camp than in the Edwards camp at this point. Yet if the race does evolve into a two-man contest, anything is possible.

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