DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - While all eyes are on the heavyweight Democratic bout in Iowa between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, a revamped John Edwards is looking to steal the presidential campaign’s first big prize.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, has eased off his attacks on rivals, dusted off the populist rhetoric of his 2004 race and primed his campaign for the sort of late charge that carried him to a strong second-place finish in Iowa four years ago.
He trails his big-name rivals in most state polls but is close enough for the race to be considered a three-way toss-up in Iowa, which on January 3 kicks off the state-by-state battle to choose candidates for the November 2008 election.
Edwards probably needs a win or a strong second to stay in the race. Either would dramatically reshape a Democratic contest dominated for months by the showdown between Clinton, a New York senator, and Obama, an Illinois senator.
“When the caucus-goers in Iowa rise up, there is going to be a wave across America that absolutely nobody can stop,” Edwards said at a recent rally in Des Moines.
Edwards had been the most aggressive of the leading Democrats during the summer and fall, going after Clinton when she refused to forgo donations from lobbyists and questioning Obama’s ability to fight special interests.
But he has eased up on his criticism as the battle between Clinton and Obama heats up, hoping perhaps to benefit by standing aside while his two rivals slice each other up.
He has returned instead to the populist themes that drove his 2004 presidential campaign, promising to fight for everyday Americans and take on the corporate interests he says have Washington by the throat.
“When they give up their power is when we take their power away from them,” he said of corporate interests, condemning “big drug companies, big oil companies and big insurance companies.”
“We have to take this democracy back.”
Edwards also touts his electability, citing a CNN poll showing he would fare the best of any Democrat against a Republican in the general election and reminding voters of his roots in the Republican-leaning rural South.
“I’m the candidate on our side who grew up in small-town rural America,” he told reporters. “Democratic presidential candidates have to be able to compete in those places to be successful.”
Polls show Edwards’ supports are among the most dedicated in the presidential race.
“He’s for the middle class and trying to take back some of the power for the people,” said Virginia Bowen, 69, a retired computer support technician. “I believe he believes what he says. I don’t think he’s saying it just to get elected.”
Sister Jeanie Hagedorn, a Catholic nun from Des Moines, said she was still undecided but was drawn to Edwards for his sympathy for everyday people.
“Edwards’s appeal is that he is the voice of the people,” she said. “The middle class and the poor are getting left behind and until we address that, we’re in trouble.”
Even with an Iowa win, Edwards would face a long campaign fight in other states that he would wage with far less money than either Clinton or Obama.
But he enters the Iowa battle with several advantages, including a long history in the state spanning his second-place finish in 2004, visits as the Democratic vice presidential candidate and continued campaigning in the past three years.
“He has worked the state hard for six years and he has considerable political talents,” said Gordon Fischer, a former state Democratic Party chairman and now an Obama supporter.
Edwards also has strong union help and heavy support in rural areas, an advantage under caucus rules that give some rural precincts nearly as much clout as more populated ones.
Edwards has frequently campaigned in the rural areas of the state and stresses his rural upbringing in North Carolina. Obama has responded in the past few weeks with his own bus tours to build rural strength.
“The message of fighting for change cuts across ideological and partisan political lines so I think I can carry that message any place in America,” Edwards said.
(To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/)
Editing by Bill Trott