updated 1/6/2004 5:00:31 PM ET 2004-01-06T22:00:31

Democrat John Edwards, who trails Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt in Iowa, is betting that a strategy of staying above the fray will give a fluid electorate reasons to take a fresh look and pump new life into his campaign.

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With most of his rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination targeting front-runner Dean, Edwards has stuck mostly to positive themes while condemning the others for their attacks.

“When politicians are yelling at each other about what someone said yesterday or seven years ago, I can promise you one thing — they are not listening to you,” Edwards says in campaign speeches.

The line is winning some voters.

“That’s why I’m supporting him,” said Jeff Vonk, of Des Moines. “He’s out here talking about the issues. He’s not on the attack.”

Pragmatic side
There’s a pragmatic side to Edwards’ approach, with polls showing large numbers of activists undecided less than two weeks before the Jan. 19 precinct caucuses launch the nominating season.

“I would be willing to bet that even today half the caucus-goers have not made a final decision,” Edwards in an interview Monday. “This thing is very fluid, there’s still huge room for movement in all directions.”

Dean’s campaign has been driven by his use of the Internet for fund raising and organizing, along with his portrayal as a blunt-spoken Washington outsider. He leads his fellow competitors in national and state polls, but is increasingly on the defensive as his rivals search for the chink in his campaign armor.

Edwards sees that as an opportunity.

“Because of his success here, he’s in the middle of the crossfire and he’s firing back,” the North Carolina lawmaker said of Dean. “All people remember is you are part of the scrapping and nastiness, and they’re looking for something different from that.”

Edwards thinks Democratic activists — who he says are being barraged by phone calls, mail, television ads and an overwhelming intensity of attacks — are looking for someone like him.

'Clear, strong message' cuts through
“What happens is if you have a clear, strong message coming from a clear, strong candidate it cuts through all that,” Edwards said.

Some activists say Edwards is playing it smart by quietly building a solid field organization while setting himself apart from the pack.

“He’s done a good job of staying out of the fray,” said veteran activist Joe Shannahan, a Dean supporter. “He’s got a pretty good field operation to use if he begins to catch fire.”

While the race is often cast as a two-person battle between Dean and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt, the caucuses often produce a candidate who gets a boost from a better-than-expected showing.

In 1996, Republican Pat Buchanan ran stronger than expected, which helped him to a later victory in New Hampshire.

In 1984, Democrat Gary Hart did better than anticipated against Walter Mondale and rode that momentum to a New Hampshire win.

Neither Buchanan nor Hart won their party nominations, but their standing in the caucuses helped mix up their respective races.

Aside from Edwards, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is also working to do better than expected in Iowa.

Kerry claims his momentum comes from growing doubts among many activists about Dean’s viability against Bush in the general election.

His hopes rest with voters like Gary Steeples, a 67-year-old Ottumwa retiree who may remain undecided until the last minute.

“I think President Bush is going to beat Sept. 11 to death, and John Kerry has the background to hit back,” Steeples said.

Taking a look
Willing to But he’s also willing to look at Edwards.

“Senator Edwards is my other possible choice because Democrats need somebody who can win in the South,” Steeples said.

Edwards appeared to impress some with Sunday’s debate performance. “The buzz I’ve heard is he did really well in the debate and probably answered some big questions about his campaign,” said Democratic strategist Jeff Link, who is not affiliated with any campaign. “Everybody likes him. Plus, he’s not throwing bombs.”

Edwards’ strategy is simple: Exceed expectations in Iowa, perhaps even besting Kerry. Then use that momentum to move up in New Hampshire before looking for a Feb. 3 win in South Carolina, where he was born.

He says it will likely be a two-person race with Dean by then.

“I would argue that the only two candidates running a national campaign are me and Howard Dean,” said Edwards. “I am in this for the long haul and it is clear that he is, too.”

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