ANAMOSA, Iowa — His sleeves rolled up under a hot afternoon sun, John Edwards stood in front of a giant American flag fielding questions from 150 Iowans in a small-town park. Then, he posed one of his own.
“How many people here plan to participate in the caucuses?” he asked, watching hands shoot up. “That’s about what I was expecting. You have enormous power to decide who the next president of the United States is going to be.”
Iowans also may have the power to make or break Edwards’ bid for the Democratic nomination. In less than six months, they’ll hold the first contest of the 2008 campaign. A win offers big momentum heading into an unprecedented crush of primaries over the following three weeks.
That’s why the North Carolina Democrat barnstormed the state last week, cruising past cornfields like the low-flying crop-dusters along the way. It was his 27th visit since the 2004 election.
While his campaign has struggled nationally, polls in Iowa have consistently shown Edwards leading or running neck-and-neck with Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
“He’s bet the house on Iowa,” said Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist. “Hillary and Obama could survive a second- or third-place finish in Iowa. I don’t think that Edwards can.”
Edwards finished second to John Kerry in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. Now, with a more refined populist message, he’s building on the grassroots network he's nurtured ever since.
“Edwards without a doubt has the strongest organization in the state,” said Gordon Fischer, a former state party chair. “All the other candidates are playing catch-up.”
Around 200 people crowd a school gym in Algona, in north central Iowa. Edwards, dressed in jeans, strides in to a rock anthem. He announces that his wife, Elizabeth, is doing well, a tacit acknowledgement of her latest bout with cancer. Then he offers a five-minute outline of his latest energy plan.
“That’s it, that’s the whole speech,” he says, opening to questions.
Gone is the “Two Americas” stump speech of 2004, the incessant reminders that he’s “the son of a mill worker.”
“The difference is that caucus-goers know me and Elizabeth,” he explains later. “The last time, they had to get to know me.” In 2004, Edwards described an America that benefited the rich while squeezing the middle class. He still does, proposing laws “on the side of working people rather than big multinational corporations.” This time, though, he offers more pointed solutions.
He details plans for universal health care, new “green-collar” jobs and help for veterans and rural America.
“I like the idea that he’s given specifics and exactly where he stands on each issue,” said Duane Wergeland, 55, a state auditor from Humboldt.
Four years ago Edwards criticized the federal deficit. Now he promises to spend money in areas such as health coverage and education and says he would “not make deficit reduction a top priority.”
“I’m not going to tell you what you want to hear,” he says in response to a deficit question. “I’m going to tell you the truth.”
“I want everybody in this country to have the same kinds of opportunities I’ve had,” he tells another audience. “You want to know what motivates me? That’s what motivates me.”
The former one-term senator once came under fire for his lack of experience. Now he peppers remarks with references to trips to places such as Africa and China and his work as head of a poverty center at the University of North Carolina.
At every stop, he ridicules the president’s handling of the war in Iraq. Holding a palm in front of his face, he says, “I always feel George Bush can’t see past here.”
Edwards, who apologized for his 2002 vote to authorize the war, would bring up to 50,000 troops home now and the rest in a few months.
“The world needs to see our better angels,” he tells listeners in Cedar Rapids. “The president of the United States ought to ask Americans to be patriotic about something besides war.”
Amanda Feeley was one of nearly 400 people who squeezed into the Fort Dodge public library to hear the candidate. Her question involved Edwards’ signature issue of poverty.
“The $400 haircut would have kept my family in groceries for three weeks,” the stay-at-home mom told him.
The audience groaned. But the haircut, like Edwards’ new, 28,000-square-foot house in Chapel Hill and work for a Wall Street hedge fund, sticks with some voters.
“I gotta tell you, the haircut thing really turned me off,” said Jean Fell, a social worker from Fort Dodge.
Later, Edwards called those things “completely frivolous” and said they rarely come up. When a reporter asked, most voters agreed.
“With all the problems we have in this country, that’s the least of my concerns,” said Kay Jensen, a retiree and Edwards’ supporter from Fort Dodge. She said “there’s no second choice” for her.
Still, Edwards faces an uphill climb. His fundraising trails far behind Clinton's and Obama's. Some pundits have relegated him to the second tier of candidates.
Ray Dutchik, a retired avionics engineer from Cedar Rapids, said, “The bloom is off the rose.
“We like the latest rock stars,” he said. “He’s yesterday’s rock star.”
Many Democrats, including some who caucused for Edwards in 2004, are weighing a field that Cedar Rapids Democrat Jim Lahr called “an embarrassment of riches.”
“The clear-cut winner is the ‘undecided’ vote right now,” said Mike Robinson, who chairs the Linn County Democrats.
But Merle Bleich, a can-maker, went to Edwards’ appearance in Algona undecided about which candidate to back, and left a supporter.
“He’s a down-to-earth guy,” he said of Edwards. “He’s for the lower-income, middle-class people.”
Everywhere he went, Edwards acknowledged the tough fight ahead.
“I know we’ve got people here who are for me,” he said, “And I know we’ve got people shopping.”
(Morrill reports for The Charlotte Observer.)