WEST DES MOINES, IOWA — WEST DES MOINES, Iowa - Like all the presidential contenders in Iowa, John Edwards boasts that he's gaining momentum in the final days before Monday's caucuses.
In his case, at least, that appears to be right.
"There is so much energy and excitement," the North Carolina senator exclaimed yesterday as he tried to rally support at an Iowa retirement community. "We're past all the preliminaries. We've got less than a week."
Edwards might be the best-positioned of all the candidates to pull off a surprise showing here. He's still running fourth in the polls, but according to officials of other campaigns and politicians neutral in the presidential race, he has been picking up support in recent days.
The 50-year-old lawyer is campaigning as a feisty underdog. Using his personal success story as Exhibit A, his closing argument to Iowa voters is that he's neither too young, too inexperienced nor too far behind to win.
"I've been getting ready for this fight all my life," he says. "You give me a shot at George Bush, I'll give you the White House."
Out of a working-class background in rural North Carolina, Edwards became wealthy as a personal injury lawyer. He used some of his millions to finance a successful entry into politics, unseating a Republican incumbent in a 1998 Senate race.
For months, he languished far behind in Iowa, where Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, remains the favorite. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt from neighboring Missouri, who won the 1988 caucuses, is in second place but appears unable to attract additional support.
Edwards has been gaining on Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, running third. A finish in the top three in Iowa has historically been critical heading into the New Hampshire primary.
If Edwards can nose past Kerry for third place in Iowa, "Kerry then has real problems in New Hampshire, and it creates a big void," said an Edwards adviser, predicting a "dogfight" in the Jan. 27 New Hampshire primary if that happens.
Roxanne Conlin, the Edwards campaign's co-chairman in Iowa, says he is "on fire" as undecided voters make their minds up and wavering backers of other candidates switch sides.
"I'd like to say we planned it this way," said Conlin, who added that the key to success on caucus night is to gain "critical mass, either by luck or talent."
Edwards won praise for his performance in recent Iowa debates, then got a boost last weekend, when he won the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper. "That was huge," said David Ginsberg, the campaign's national communications director.
Now, the question that no one can answer, aides acknowledge, is whether Edwards might be making a move too late. Conlin said:
"One of the problems is translating the enormous enthusiasm into work on the ground. It is almost overwhelming our ability to deal with it."
Unlike Dean and Gephardt, Edwards can't turn to labor unions and other outside groups with expertise in mobilizing voters. He has no such endorsements. He's also hampered by spending limits, unlike Kerry and Dean, who opted out of the matching-fund system and are freely outspending their rivals.
While the front-running Dean is drawing most of the fire from the others, Dean has begun attacking Edwards for supporting the Iraq war resolution. The senator, who mentions Iraq only in passing in his speeches, is driving home an outsider message, trying to turn his brief experience as a Washington politician to his advantage.
He's also running as the most upbeat candidate in the race, telling voters his candidacy is based on "the politics of hope" rather than "cynicism."
Staying out of the crossfire is a proven strategy for candidates in multi-candidate races that have grown negative. For weeks, Edwards has been reaching out to people turned off by the nasty Democratic dogfight.
"If you are looking for the candidate who will do the best job of sniping at the other Democratic candidates, I'm not your guy," Edwards says with a smile.
And yet he also tells voters that he won't raise taxes on the middle class to pay for his health-care plan, a swipe at Gephardt and Dean, who would roll back Bush's tax cuts to finance their proposals.
Roughly half of likely caucus-goers say that finding a candidate who can defeat Bush is more important than selecting one who agrees with them on the issues, a recent Tribune Newspapers poll found. Edwards is pushing hard the notion that he's best-equipped to challenge the president in his native region.
"The South is not George Bush's back yard," he says. "It is my back yard."
Karen Soike, 60, a Des Moines housewife and Edwards supporter, said she had been "turned off" by Dean. "I think he's put his foot in his mouth a few times."
Edwards, on the other hand, strikes her as "someone who would be ethical in office and committed to positive change."
Pamela Hedges, 61, a Des Moines social worker, said she considered and rejected Dean. "I'm afraid Dean is another guy who may not listen well when he ought to," she said.
Though she disagrees with Edwards' vote on the Iraq war, "you can't pick a candidate who is right on every issue," she said. "I like Edwards' positive appeal. This young man really understands what's going on with real people. I think he's headed in the right direction."