RACINE, Wis. -- Blue-collar workers and students surrounded Sen. John Edwards at a community center in this old manufacturing town the other morning as he recited some damaging statistics about the local economy.
"Look at what's happened right here in the state of Wisconsin since George Bush has been in office," he said. "Sixty thousand people have lost their health care coverage, 74,000 people have lost their jobs. In the time he's been in office, 27,000 have filed for bankruptcy."
Having thus localized his basic pitch of a society of "two Americas," of haves and have-nots in terms of the economy, Mr. Edwards went on to make the same case about education, the environment and even foreign policy as he bid for their votes in tomorrow's Democratic primary. But it is the positive tone of Mr. Edwards' now-familiar speech that continues to warm audiences as much as the populist content.
Larry Van Ness, a retired schoolteacher and independent voter, was here to see Mr. Edwards a second time. He said he finds it "rather refreshing" that the North Carolinian tries to uplift the campaign by "not starting cat fights or trying to find the negative in everything."
He says he fears that Mr. Edwards may have paid a price for taking the high road "because he doesn't get the media attention. People like cat fights." But Mr. Van Ness acknowledges at the same time that it has been Mr. Edwards' positive campaigning that has earned him most of the media attention he has enjoyed.
With fellow Southerner retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark out of the race, however, Mr. Edwards has a chance to grab more of the spotlight as the sole serious alternative to front-running Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts -- if he can finish ahead of fading former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont in Wisconsin.
Although Dr. Dean says he is determined to survive with a strong showing here, the Edwards campaign acts as if Dr. Dean is already finished. Mr. Edwards' strategists contend that if their man beats Dr. Dean tomorrow, for all practical purposes he will have achieved the one-on-one matchup with Mr. Kerry that has been a prime interim objective of his campaign.
Nick Baldick, Mr. Edwards' national campaign manager, says a race finally seen as a Kerry-Edwards confrontation will bring his man the sort of public focus that has been lacking in the multi-candidate field.
Heading toward the Mar. 2 Super Tuesday of 10 state contests, including California, New York, Ohio and Maryland, Mr. Baldick says Mr. Edwards will have the opportunity for such confrontations in at least two debates -- in Los Angeles and New York. Long shots Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio also have vowed to hang in.
Mr. Edwards' talents on the stump, based on his noncombative and optimistic style, so far have won him more media and public admiration than votes. According an Associated Press survey of delegates committed going into the weekend, Mr. Kerry had 539 to only 166 for Mr. Edwards and 182 for Dr. Dean, with 134 for others.
But 2,162 are needed for nomination, and Mr. Baldick, noting that about three-fourths of the convention delegates are still to be elected and committed, says "the math is still open" for Mr. Edwards to catch up to and overtake Mr. Kerry. On Super Tuesday alone, 1,151 are to be elected to serve with 257 more designated as super delegates. The super delegates are not pledged to any candidate.
On March 2, Mr. Baldick says, mega-states California and New York will be too costly for extensive television buys, but Mr. Edwards will target Georgia, Maryland and economically-strapped Minnesota, Ohio and upstate New York. On March 9, more than 450 delegates will be involved in Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas, where Mr. Baldick says Mr. Edwards should do especially well.
Although Mr. Kerry beat Mr. Edwards last week in Tennessee and Virginia, Mr. Edwards continued to tell the audience in Racine that he is the candidate who can beat President Bush in the South. In any event, such comments looking beyond Super Tuesday convey a hopeful sense by the Edwards campaign that tomorrow's Wisconsin primary will mark a new phase rather than the end of the road that others are predicting.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.