AMES, Iowa -- In his angry campaign speeches, John Edwards vows to fight as president for millions of ordinary Americans whose futures are threatened by "corporate greed." But it's his own future that is in jeopardy right now.
Edwards has his back to the wall in tomorrow night's Iowa caucuses, the first voter test of the 2008 campaign. Unlike Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, his rivals in a three-way battle for first place, he's pouring almost everything into this state.
Without an Iowa victory, Edwards advisers have privately acknowledged, his chances of winning the Democratic nomination could all but disappear.
Yesterday, the former senator launched a final 36-hour marathon bus tour across the state, drawing on personal connections to Iowa voters that he formed in 2004, when he came within an eyelash of beating Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry on caucus night. Edwards wound up as Kerry's running mate.
"This is very personal to me," Edwards says, with emphasis, at every campaign stop. "Very personal."
The refrain refers to his modest upbringing in a North Carolina mill town, which he points to as he makes the case that he is the only candidate who will fight corporate interests and their lobbyists in Washington without compromise.
But the "personal" line also could refer to the reason he's got a fighting chance of winning here. He's spent the past four years tending to his Iowa supporters, and many are sticking with him.
"He worked closely with legislators in 2004 and really built a network through those folks that never went away," said Dave Schrader, the former Democratic leader of the Iowa House. "He's got a real advantage through that."
Elizabeth Edwards' diagnosis with an inoperable form of cancer last year added a highly emotional dimension to the relationship with Iowans. Edwards' wife of 30 years has long been his most effective campaign surrogate, and many Iowans reacted to news of her illness as if a close friend had been stricken.
Along with their two young children, she has campaigned aggressively for her husband, introducing him at a New Year's Day rally on the Iowa State University campus with the closing theme of his pre-caucus push: "electability."
Pointing to national polls, she argued that Edwards would be the Democrats' strongest candidate in the fall presidential election by making the national ticket competitive again in the "red" states of the South and Southwest.
He seconded her remarks, telling a crowd of about 400 that "the corporate greed and corporate power, and their iron-fisted grip on your democracy that [is] stealing your children's future and ... destroying the middle class, [is] not just doing it to Democrats. It's doing it to independents. It's doing it to Republicans. [And] there is no place in America that I can't go and talk about this."
Elizabeth Edwards also stars in a new campaign commercial that makes a powerful, if subtle, link to family tragedies, which included the death of the couple's teenage son in a 1996 car accident.
"It's unbelievably important," she says in the TV ad, "that in our president we have someone who can stare the worst in the face and not blink."
But unless he comes out on top in the Iowa caucus contest, Edwards' chances of getting the nomination could melt away quickly. He's running third in New Hampshire polls, and without a boost from winning Iowa, he's unlikely to win there, further straining his campaign's limited resources.
Clinton and Obama have outraised him by a wide margin, while Edwards was forced to fall back on public matching funds for his campaign. That puts him at a competitive disadvantage, though he's getting lots of help from an outside group, run by his former campaign manager, whose pro-Edwards TV ads, critics say, undercut the former senator's claims to be a political reformer.
Recent Iowa polling shows Edwards running third, but the peculiar rules of the caucuses could help him win. Polls also indicate that he has more support than Obama and Clinton in rural areas, which get weighted more heavily in the statewide tally than urban areas.
Edwards also could gain as Democrats go through the complex caucus process in nearly 1,800 precinct meetings. Candidates who get less than 15 percent are deemed not "viable," and their supporters must choose another candidate, declare themselves uncommitted, or go home.
Patricia Calkins, 49, a teacher at Simpson College in Indianola, said she's going to vote for Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, "who is not going to make it." Edwards will be her second choice, because "he has a better handle on the domestic problems of the country," she said, unless Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware is viable in her precinct.
A recent Los Angeles Times/ Bloomberg poll of likely caucus-goers showed Edwards with the most second-choice support, though a new Des Moines Register poll found no second-choice advantage for any candidate.
Another unusual factor that might help Edwards: tactical voting. Iowa activists, who follow candidates the way avid sports fans track their favorite team, are well aware of their clout in picking a nominee and often act accordingly.
Ed Dobelis, 51, of Ogden likes Obama's "vision" but knows that Edwards badly needs help.
"If Edwards doesn't get [an Iowa victory] this time, I think he'll be done, and I believe he deserves a shot," said the high school teacher, who plans to back Edwards. "He's been through two campaigns now. How many more can he go through?"