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For Edwards, it's all on Iowa
A loss there likely would end the Democrat's working-class candidacy.
By MICHAEL VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published November 23, 2007
Democrat John Edwards has continued the blue-collar approach from his 2004 campaign, but this time he also attacks his rivals.
Musician Bonnie Raitt performs with Jackson Browne while campaigning for democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards at Grinnell College in Iowa. Raitt and Browne performed short concerts for Edwards during a two-day campaign swing through Iowa.
SIOUX CITY, Iowa - Earnest blue collar rock - Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, Tom Petty - blasted from the speakers at a community college as a crowd of 300 awaited John Edwards on a recent Friday afternoon.
Minutes later, clad in a blue suit and tie, Edwards gave what has become his typical stump speech in Iowa. He invoked the Iraq war, Katrina and health care to highlight his theme that Washington is under the control of lobbyists, undermining the middle class. His Democratic opponent, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a defender of this corruption, he says - often to loud applause.
"Nothing is going to change if we replace corporate Republicans with corporate Democrats," Edwards said.
It's provocative stuff, and it plays well to the working-class crowds turning out to watch the former U.S. senator from North Carolina reinvent himself. Gone is the centrist candidate from 2003 and 2004 who vowed not to criticize his Democratic opponents. In his place is Edwards 2.0, an edgy populist mounting an insurgent campaign against Clinton.
"Maybe he learned that nice guys don't finish first," said Edwards supporter Wesley Whitead, a state representative whose district includes Sioux City. "I like him better this time. He'll do well in Iowa."
He'll have to.
No other candidate has more on the line in Iowa than Edwards. By the end of the day Jan. 3, Edwards either will have won Iowa and vaulted into serious contention to win the nomination, or he will disappear. For a candidate who has devoted so much of his campaign energy here, at the expense of other places, even second place would be a devastating loss.
That's why the primary rule dispute that led Democratic candidates to boycott Florida was such welcome news in the Edwards camp.
Without money to compete in the Sunshine State anyway, signing the boycott pledge was a great excuse to focus on Iowa.
Edwards has stumped in Iowa more than any other candidate, deploying a political team with loads of experience in the state he's avoided - Florida.
Several who worked on Jim Davis' unsuccessful campaign last year for Florida governor are now in Iowa, including pollster Harrison Hickman and regional field director Pam Danielson. His Iowa field director is Jennifer O'Malley, who was Davis' campaign manager.
O'Malley helped run Edwards' operation here in 2004 when he came out of nowhere to place second in the caucus, making him an unexpected contender for the nomination.
"She's relentless and she knows Iowa," Davis said. "She's terrific at organizing volunteers and building grass roots. In a state like Iowa, that's important. Florida is more of a TV state where field operations don't matter as much."
He's close in Iowa
In the most recent poll by CBS News and the New York Times, Edwards trailed Clinton by two percentage points in Iowa and led Barack Obama by a point. Compare that to nationally, where Edwards lags far behind Clinton and Obama in polls. In Florida, his deficit is even larger, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times poll.
If he wins Iowa in six weeks, much of that goes away. He'll be on the cover of newspapers and magazines and his name will open newscasts. This attention, in turn, will open campaign coffers - allowing Edwards to battle on in other states.
But his Iowa strategy has a severe downside: Unlike for Clinton or Obama, a defeat amid these Midwestern wheat and corn fields, ranches and hog and wind farms, would be fatal.
"Edwards has to win Iowa," said Peverill Squire, author of The Iowa Caucuses and the Presidential Nominating Process. "He knows that if he can't win here, it would be hard for him to make the case he can win in November. If he can pull out a victory, though, he might be able to carry on to the nomination."
Iowa offers opportunities for Edwards that can't be found in the sprawling sun-baked terrain of Florida.
Geographically, Iowa is hardly small. Most of the land is used for farming. Finding a crowd is tricky, but imperative for any candidate spending time and money to venture into the hinterlands.
Campaigning here requires the ability to draw meaningful crowds. It helps to have a staff familiar with the many remote towns - which Edwards has because much of his staff, like O'Malley, worked here for him four years ago.
Unlike Florida, campaign events such as town hall meetings can make a big difference because they allow candidates to interact, and hopefully sway, a relevant chunk of the 150,000 Democrats who are anticipated to attend the caucuses.
"You can't campaign like this in Florida," said Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. "What do you have, 17-million people? In the last two years, I will have probably met with 60,000 Iowans who plan to caucus. Only in a small state can you do that."
These press-the-flesh gatherings also, by chance, accentuate the personal skills of Edwards, a former trial lawyer, in ways that a TV ad can't.
"When Edwards is on his game, he's hard to beat," said David Johansen, an Obama supporter who lives in Knoxville, a rural town an hour south of Des Moines. "There's 300 people around, and he's got this ability to look at you and make it seem like you're the only one in the room."
'Knows what it's like'
Iowa also has a struggling economy, making it receptive to Edwards' populism. In the past five years, wages have grown by 3.5 percent, according to the U.S. Commerce Department, barely outpacing an inflation rate of 2.7 percent. Towns like Sioux City, once the center of packing houses and the headquarters for Gateway Computer, have seen those jobs go away, replaced by call centers and Indian casinos.
In Mason City, two hours north of Des Moines, people are "barely getting by," said Alan Anderson, president of a local United Steelworkers union. "We have these massive factory buildings sitting empty. Manufacturing jobs have been replaced by retail jobs, which have lower wages and benefits."
Anderson's union endorsed Edwards because "he realizes what's happening to us."
This tendency for voters to feel that Edwards identifies with them could be his strength.
In the Nov. 12 poll conducted by CBS News and the New York Times, 32 percent said Edwards understood the problems of Iowans. Clinton and Obama only scored 18 percent each in this category.
"He appeals to me most because he came up from humble beginnings," said Whitead, the Sioux City state representative. "He knows what it's like to live here in Iowa."
Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3402.