Democrat John Edwards spent 2007 gambling his candidacy on Iowa, and in recent months, it looked like a misplaced bet as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama shouldered past him. But with two days of campaigning left, polls show it's back to being a three-way race.

NPR's David Welna has been following former Senator Edwards over the last couple of days.

(Soundbite of music, "America Rising")

Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer): (Singing) This is my country.

DAVID WELNA: John Edwards walked into the Sioux City Convention Center last night where hundreds of people had braved the cold to hear his closing argument. For Edwards and for Iowa, this final day's finale has a feel of deja vu.

Mr. JOHN EDWARDS (Former Democratic Senator, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): Listen, thank you for coming. There's an incredible energy and momentum behind this campaign. We can feel it everywhere we go, everywhere.

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

Mr. EDWARDS: My job as president is to work with the Congress to unify America. 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; they do - an iron-fisted hold on your democracy. Nothing will change until we break that hold.

WELNA: Edwards compares himself on the stump to Teddy Roosevelt fighting the big trusts(ph), and Franklin Roosevelt facing down corporate bullies. His campaign manager, former Michigan congressman David Bonior, says Edwards is tapping into a long tradition of prairie populism.

Mr. DAVID BONIOR (Former Democratic Congressman, Michigan): He is a populist. Yes, 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.

WELNA: Just ask Steve Corey(ph), a sales manager who plans to caucus for the first time Thursday, with Edwards as his candidate

Mr. STEVE COREY (Sales Manager): This government was originally designed by our Founding Fathers for the people, by the people and of the people. And I believe that his message about the corporate greed and the fact that they bought and paid for our government is absolutely true.

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

Mr. AL STURGEON (Edwards' County Coordinator): He's electable, and that's why I think he's starting to move up in polls, just like four years ago. 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.

WELNA: It has also 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.

Ms. ELIZABETH EDWARDS (Mr. John Edwards' Wife): At every level, we're getting feedback that John's message really is finally breaking through. Which is great, you know, because there was a long time when if you were paying -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 still, their wives can worry about that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WELNA: Edwards is also no longer playing Mr. Nice Guy he did four years ago. Here he is taking a thinly veiled swipe earlier today here in Storm Lake that's clearly aimed at rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Mr. EDWARDS: We have very good presidential candidates. I mean, I know them and I respect them. But if they don't take it personally, if it's academic, if it's intellectual, or it's political, the first time the tough fight comes, they will do the political thing. You can take that to the bank.

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

David Welna, NPR News, Storm Lake, Iowa.

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