Edwards Seeks the Issue to Win Iowa

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DES MOINES, Dec. 17 -- John Edwards, vowing to challenge the powerful on behalf of the powerless, rallied supporters Monday at a downtown appearance where he accepted the endorsement of Iowa's first lady, Mari Culver, a women's advocate who called him "the first candidate in my adult life to make it his cause to eliminate poverty in America."

Wrapping up an eight-day bus tour in the state that propelled him to prominence in 2004 and may decide his political future on Jan. 3, the former senator from North Carolina sounded the populist themes he has hammered at relentlessly in his final drive to overtake Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton by next month's Democratic presidential caucuses.

"When they give up their power," Edwards declared in a characteristic blast at corporations and their lobbyists, "is when we take their power away from them."

Edwards, who first introduced himself to Iowans with a happier face, has been laboring to generate momentum after months when polls show him stuck behind Obama and Clinton in a close, three-way race. Four years after a surge in the final two weeks carried him to a surprising second-place finish behind Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), he is counting on a strong organization and doubts about his rivals.

"We just need to keep getting out there," Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager, said Monday. "The challenge for John is to tell people why the stakes are so high and what needs to be done to fix the system. The only way to do that is to take on the powers that rigged the system."

This year's candidate is not the same fresh face who captivated many Iowans four years ago. His populist message is similar, but it carries a sharper edge that can attract or deter, depending on the listener. He describes himself as angrier and more offended by the record of the Bush administration, Congress and corporate executives.

"Corporate greed and influence in Washington are stealing our children's future," Edwards says in a new television advertisement called "Fight." "The moral test of our generation is whether we're going to allow this broken system to go on without a fight. . . . Saving the middle class is going to be an epic battle, and that's a fight I was born for."

Edwards's reference to a "moral test" fits with an effort by his strategists to give caucus participants a feel-good reason to back him in a race that could make history if Clinton (N.Y.) becomes the first woman or Obama (Ill.) the first African American to win the nomination.

The Edwards camp believes reporters and pundits have made his job harder by largely portraying the nomination battle as a two-person race between Clinton and Obama. Edwards still hopes to emerge as the anti-Clinton candidate who can unite the party, but Obama beat him to the money and media attention.

"I've always compared Edwards to a real-life version of an attorney in a John Grisham novel," said Douglas Burns, a newsman in Carroll, Iowa, who also writes for the Iowa Independent Web site. "And who reads a John Grisham novel twice?"

Edwards was introduced at campaign events last week by actor Tim Robbins, who said the media too often write the former vice presidential candidate out of their stories.

"There is a third person in this race," Robbins said in Iowa City, "and I have a feeling that he'll be pulling ahead of the other two."

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