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Edwards banking on populist charisma

As Monday's Iowa caucuses approach, Sen. John Edwards' campaign — buoyed by an endorsement of their man by the state’s biggest newspaper the Des Moines Register — is carefully trying to keep expectations within bounds.
"He excels at the closing argument," says a staffer of Edwards, who was a trial lawyer before being elected to the Senate.Rick Wilking / Reuters
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Democratic presidential North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, the briskly positive Dixie alternative to the quarrelling Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt, is running hard across Iowa hoping to emerge as a strong third-place finisher and vault ahead to victory in the Feb. 3 South Carolina primary.

Edwards spent Monday making his pitch to voters across the state, hopping from Cedar Rapids in eastern Iowa to Sioux City in the west and hitting smaller towns Denison and Storm Lake as well.

The Edwards campaign — buoyed by an endorsement of their man by the state’s biggest newspaper the Des Moines Register — is carefully trying to keep expectations within bounds.

“Finishing third would be great,” said a top Edwards campaign staffer.

But isn’t a strong third-place Iowa finish in fact essential for Edwards to keep his momentum going as he heads to South Carolina? No, said the Edwards campaign source.

The Edwards camp is buoyed by the large enthusiastic crowds they are seeing on the ground in Iowa in recent days. On Monday, over 150 supporters and “leaners” turned out in Sioux City and then another 150 in Storm Lake.

'Closing the deal'
“January is about closing the deal, about moving from voters interested in Edwards to voters committed to him,” said campaign spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri.

But why commit to a former trial lawyer who had never won any elective office until 1998? Although he served on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Edwards can not claim the foreign policy weight of Wesley Clark or the executive credentials of Dean.

But Edwards makes a virtue of not having spent his life in Washington. “Do you believe we need to change America and change Washington? Do you think somebody who has spent most of their life in politics or in Washington, D.C., is going to change America?”

On Monday, perhaps feeling the heat from Edwards here in Iowa, Dean mocked his claim to be a non-Washington outsider. “You go to Washington, you’re a Washington politician,” Dean said, in the course of arguing that he, who served in the Vermont legislature, as lieutenant governor and as governor for more than two decades, was the genuine non-politician. “We cannot have politicians anymore representing our party – we’re going to lose if we do.”

Edwards returned fire a few hours later, saying, “If Iowa caucus-goers want someone who has been in politics for 20 years and is the best at political sniping, they have other choices. My campaign is a positive campaign about the politics of hope, not cynicism.”

Don't underestimate him
Drawing on his years as a trial lawyer who won big damage awards in product liability cases, Edwards argues that he has been underestimated his whole life.

“I’d walk into courtrooms, it would be me on one side, and on the other side would be all those armies of lawyers from the big corporations,” he told his audience in Sioux City.  “They had the best lawyers money could buy, older, experienced. They looked over at me and kind of said, ‘What is he doing here? He thinks he belongs in this courtroom with us?’  –- and I beat ’em and then I beat ’em again and then I beat ’em again.”

He shrewdly asks his listeners to identify with his biography: “Just to make this personal to you, just ask yourself, How many times in your life has somebody told you, ‘You can’t do this?’ Right? How many times? They say you don’t have quite the right training or experience or education – whatever the reason is. But here’s the truth: You and I can do this together, we can change America together.”

“The question voters have is, does the experience he has translate into presidential experience,” said a top Edwards campaign staffer. “For the Des Moines Register to say, ‘Yes it does,’ is a very big deal for this candidacy.”

Edwards is drawing admirers in Iowa because he is running an indomitably upbeat campaign here, stressing a populist, anti-corporate message.

“In a country that you and I have built together, we’re not going to have two health care systems, one for all those people who can afford the best health care money can buy, and one for everybody else, rationed out by the insurance companies and drug companies,” he told the crowd in Sioux City.

'It belongs to you!'
“This democracy does not belong to that crowd of insiders in Washington, it belongs to you!” he declared.

Edwards’ populism with a Southern drawl draws on the tradition of Dixie “us-versus-them” candidates from Populist Party presidential candidate Tom Watson in the 1920s to George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992. To that populism, Edwards adds a layer of rhetoric that might go down well at a Rotary Club meeting: “Cynics didn’t build this country; optimists built this country.”

“He excels at the closing argument and we’re now at that stage,” said Palmieri.

“I came here today to ask you to caucus for me, to get your friends, your neighbors, everybody you can touch, to the caucuses,” Edwards said in Sioux City. “We don’t have much time left. If I could reach out there and grab you in your chair, I would. I need you, I need you at the caucuses.”

Edwards arms his supporters with answers for any skeptics. “I want you to tell them, ‘This is the guy who can beat Bush everywhere in America, in the North, in the West, in the Midwest and in the South. People will say, ‘Wait a minute, George Bush is really strong in the South.’ You tell them I said this: The South is my backyard, not George Bush’s backyard.”

Tom Curry /

No Democrat has ever won the White House without winning at least a few Southern states and the last three Democrats elected to the White House have been Southerners. But ultimately the history may be less compelling than the Edwards charisma.

Marjorie Urban, a retired teacher from Storm Lake, told after hearing Edwards, “I was very impressed. He doesn’t run everybody down and he tells us what he wants to do. He’s charismatic like Kennedy. And I think he can really out-debate George W. I’ve been on the edge not knowing what to do but now I’m pretty sure and I plan to caucus for him.”