MASON CITY, Iowa - A sign stuck in the ice along a strip of highway spelled out the challenge for Barack Obama as his campaign bus rolled through small, farm and manufacturing towns in northern Iowa over the past four days. It read: "John Edwards Country."
While the Hillary Clinton vs. Obama storyline dominates coverage of the Democratic presidential primaries, the competition for support in first-voting Iowa is likely to remain a three-way tug-of-war until results of its Jan. 3 caucus are in.
It's in Iowa's more rural stretches where Edwards, the 2004 vice presidential nominee, former North Carolina senator, trial lawyer and son of a mill worker, has invested the most and seems most at ease with voters.
And so, after finishing his Oprah Winfrey tour, Obama turned his attention to smaller-scale stops, 18 small-town appearances scheduled to end in Sioux City on Monday night.
Obama mentioned Edwards by name as he spoke to a crowd Saturday morning in the town of Independence.
He said that in terms of proposing universal health coverage, Edwards "has done some good work" but that he disagreed with Edwards' rhetoric about freezing out drug and insurance interests from negotiations over how to craft such coverage. "The notion they will have no say-so at all in anything, it's just not realistic, it's just not true," Obama said.
Edwards, in an appearance Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," reiterated his position.
His opponents, he said, "seem to believe that you can forge big change in this country by working with oil companies, gas companies, power companies, insurance companies, drug companies," who will "just give away their power.
"I think that is a fantasy," said Edwards.
Edwards' argument plays well in rural Iowa, and helps him in a state whose caucus system, as distinct from primary elections, gives greater proportional weight to rural areas than cities.
Obama also has his eye on another feature of the caucus structure: Under the Democrats' system in Iowa, candidates who draw less than 15 percent at a precinct are considered non-viable and their supporters are courted by others.
The result is competition among the leading candidates to be second choice here among voters who prefer someone in the second tier of popular support. Backers of Sens. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson are among the courted.
With the same strategy, Clinton began her own small-town Iowa blitz on Sunday that'll follow Obama's footsteps. should take her to some of the same places where Obama has just been.
Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe, along for the bus tour, said Edwards "has got a lot of strong support" in these areas but that as many as one in five caucus-goers might back a second candidate if their first choice fell below 15 percent.
"For those people that are not firm, the case we're making is, we're the best candidate to bring about change because we can unify the country to a greater extent than the rest of the field."
The Des Moines Register's coveted endorsement for the Democratic caucus went to Clinton over the weekend. But for the Obama camp there was something to salvage: By rejecting Edwards, whom the paper had endorsed four years ago, perhaps the Clinton endorsement would send some Edwards supporters Obama's way.
For small-town audiences, Obama tweaked his message. He focused more on the economy, trade agreements and health insurance even as he repeated his anti-war, anti-lobbyist platform. He promised to listen to their needs. He talked less about racial healing, or whether it's his "turn" as he moved through towns with names like Charles City, Guttenberg and Oelwein, talking to crowds of a few hundred.
At some stops, when he asked his audience how many still were undecided, half raised their hands.
Without saying so directly, Obama, a biracial first-term senator from Chicago, has been working to win over Edwards supporters who are unsure Edwards can compete in states beyond Iowa. He's also after those whose passion for Edwards cooled after reports of his expensive haircuts, his mansion or his work for hedge funds.
"We can't help but think of those things, can we?" said Kaye Schmit, who caucused for Edwards in 2004 but attended an Obama town hall meeting Saturday and said she will caucus for Obama this time. "He just strikes me as having more interest in the common people."
Schmit's husband, Leo, a retired farmer, said Obama seems less divisive than Clinton and Edwards. "He says he wants to be the president of the United States of America, not red America or blue America."
Others weren't letting go of Edwards that easily.
Many who arrived late to an Obama gathering in Manchester on Friday had come straight from an Edwards appearance across town.
Edwards "was quite inspiring," said Rebecca Berry, 53. Berry, an educational consultant, still wearing an Edwards sticker on her gray turtleneck. She sat through Obama's remarks blank-faced, then got up and left, concluding, "I think John Edwards was more inspirational, more passionate."
Scott Slater, 56, an ex-farmer who said he'd lost one factory job to China and now has another factory job, said after hearing both men speak, "I like Obama, too, but I think Edwards is more elect-able. I think the Democrats are going to have to carry some Southern states. Edwards, when he talks, he seems more forceful."
Clinton has fans in these towns as well. Mike Roling, a retired John Deere assemblyman, said, "Clinton has experience - she's been there before. With Obama the fact he's been able to work with more diverse groups, that's valuable."
But many men attending the Obama events in small towns, and some women, said Clinton seemed too big-city, or too much of a Washington insider, or that they didn't like her negative campaign style of late.
"We're farmers," explained Deborah Errthum, 52, after an event at the Lakeside Ballroom, a creaky Prohibition-era dance hall and bar where Johnny Cash and Lawrence Welk once played.
Errthum likes Edwards because "he supports farmers." Yet she was drawn to Obama because of his longer-standing opposition to the Iraq war and the former community organizer's experience with social issues.
She said she's not sure how she'll decide in the end, she said. "I think it's going to come down to a gut feeling."