Edwards in Iowa's Spotlight as Finish Line Nears

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With the sounds of the Bruce Springsteen song "America Rising" as a backdrop, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards walked into the Sioux City Convention Center and stood before hundreds of people to deliver his closing argument. For Edwards and for Iowa, this finale has that feel of déjà vu.

"Thank you for coming. There's an incredible energy and momentum behind this campaign. We can feel it everywhere we go, everywhere," he said.

Edwards is hoping history will repeat itself, only he wants to improve on the unexpected second-place finish he received four years ago. Edwards was cheerful and sunny back then; this time, he's casting himself as a battle-tested fighter for America's middle class.

"My job as president is to work with the Congress to unify America," Edwards told the crowd. "I will do that as president of the United States, but we have a huge battle with these entrenched moneyed interests. Those people have a stranglehold on your democracy, an iron-fisted hold on your democracy. Nothing will change until we break that hold."

Edwards compares himself on the stump to former presidents such as Teddy Roosevelt, who fought the big trusts, or Franklin Roosevelt, who faced down corporate bullies. His campaign manager, former Michigan congressman David Bonior, says Edwards is tapping into a long tradition of prairie populism.

"He is a populist. This is Iowa: the land of Henry Wallace, a great populist. This area of the country, the area that I come from, Michigan, Wisconsin — we respond to populists," Bonior said.

Just ask Steve Corey, a sales manager who plans to caucus for the first time Thursday, with Edwards as his candidate.

"My biggest problem, or my biggest challenge, is the fact that we need to take our government back," Corey said. "This government was originally designed by our Founding Fathers for the people, by the people and of the people. I believe that his message about the corporate greed and the fact that they bought and paid for our government is absolutely true."

But others say there is more to Edwards' recent surge in Iowa than his populist pitch. Al Sturgeon, Edwards' county coordinator, says those who backed less-popular candidates earlier have come to a pragmatic conclusion about Edwards.

"He is electable, and that's why I think he's starting to move up in polls, just like four years ago," Sturgeon said. "People started focusing on electability— that is why John Kerry's star rose and Howard Dean's went down. That's why John Edwards is starting to pick up momentum."

It also has not hurt that Elizabeth Edwards has joined her husband on the campaign trail, even after being diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. Talking to the crowd in Sioux City, she reveled in his recent surge in the polls.

"At every level, we're getting feedback that John's message really is finally breaking through," Elizabeth Edwards said. "Which is great, because there was a long time when if you were paying attention, reading the newspapers or watching television, you thought there were only two Democratic candidates. So apparently, now they at least know that there are three Democratic candidates, which is nice if you're the third one. It's not so nice if you're below that, but their wives can worry about that."

Edwards has also stopped playing Mr. Nice Guy, as he did four years ago. He recently took a thinly veiled swipe at Democratic rivals Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.

"We have very good presidential candidates. I know them and I respect them," he said, but admonished that "the first time the tough fight comes, they will do the political thing. You can take that to the bank."

For all his bravado about being a Washington outsider, you might never know that, like Obama and Clinton, Edwards was once a U.S. senator.

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