East Des Moines, Iowa -- By local weather standards, it's a great Sunday morning. Bitter cold but no snow and no wind. And Alise Roderer, a young field organizer for the John Edwards campaign, is brightly encouraged by the tentative sunlight. Yesterday her volunteer canvass teams knocked on a thousand local doors. Today she hopes for the same.
"It's really, really important that you stress to the undecided that John Edwards is the most electable Democrat," she says to about 25 volunteers gathered in a steelworkers' union hall next door to the grimy Titan Tire factory.
On this final Sunday, Roderer's push is but one small piece of a coordinated statewide Edwards canvass aimed at snatching a surprise first place win Thursday night. And that possible victory now seems so close, so tangible, that the candidate and his staff can almost taste it.
While Edwards has been considered by much of the national media as the third man out in the in the juicy Clinton-Obama battle for the nomination, all of a sudden the former North Carolina senator is popping up in first place in a number of Iowa polls. And some analysts are even beginning to speak of an Edwards surge.
Even Edwards' top adviser on rural strategy, Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, warns that only a fool would predict next Thursday's winner. But no serious observer is now discounting the possibility of an Edwards victory.
Edwards has been buoyed by swelling crowds that have been overflowing his jam-packed marathon campaign schedule, often hitting a half-dozen towns and cities per day. "I've felt this energy, this excitement, this momentum before and it's real. It's no accident," Edwards excitedly told a whipped up Des Moines audience of more than 1,000 supporters Saturday night. It was a clear reference to the undeniable surge Edwards staged in the '04 Iowa caucuses where he nearly trumped John Kerrey.
Earlier in the day, Edwards had drawn almost 500 people each to small-town events in Washington and Knoxville. And this morning he found almost 400 supporters waiting for him in the hamlet of Boone.
The size and scope of candidate rallies are no measure in themselves of a candidate's ultimate chances. Here in Iowa it's crucial that, on election night, supporters actually show up for the relatively complicated and prolonged caucusing process. And, again, analysts agree that Edwards has spent the last two years putting together a formidable ground organization, especially in the remote rural districts which wield disproportionate weight in the final outcome.
"Please make sure you bring back very precise information on everyone you contact," Roderer told the canvassers as she passed them their information packets. "We really need to know who our supporters are and who really intends to caucus so that on Thursday night we don't waste any time on those who aren't."
All of the campaigns will spare no efforts nor expense on caucus night to entice, transport and even babysit for potential caucus goers. The Clinton campaign, which is counting on a high turn-out among the elderly, has ordered up catered food to be served at pre-caucus parties hoping to lure supporters out in time to make the 7 p.m. caucus deadline. The Obama campaign is targeting university students and younger voters.
The Edwards campaign is banking on the pent-up frustration of traditional and loyal Democratic voters, especially those in organized labor to muscle him to the top this week. "He's a strong Democrat and he's strong for labor," said 35 yr. old Robert Erwin, an Alabama steel worker in cammie pants and a baseball cap who came in to work this morning's Edwards phone bank in the union hall. Other union workers working the phones and getting ready to canvass hailed from California, Illinois and Wisconsin as well as some rubber workers from the Titan plant. Two college students from Seattle were running down phone lists to invite anyone who said "yes" to attend a Wednesday night John Mellenkamp concert in support of Edwards.
Edwards, whatever the final outcome, seems intent on not giving up without a dramatic, fiery all-or-nothing defiance. He vowed to campaign straight-through with no sleep the final 36 hours of the Iowa contest. In these final days he has toughened his tone, making him sound more like a Latin American populist than a genteel Southern Democrat. His speeches have become emotional incitements to "rise up" against the "small band of profiteers" who have clamped down an "iron grip" on American life. He has qualified any notion of politically investing in the Clinton campaign as an agent of change as "insanity" and has said that, unlike Obama, he would "never, ever" sit down to negotiate with powerful special interests like the health care lobby. "They will never give up power voluntarily," Edwards told a cheering crowd Saturday. "The only way they will ever give up power is when it is taken away from them."
After listening to just such an Edwards speech this weekend, one veteran campaign observer quipped: "No Democrat has run a campaign like this since Fred Harris." In 1976 the former Oklahoma senator unsuccessfully challenged Jimmy Carter for the nomination from the left by running on an unabashedly populist platform. "After Harris lost," said the observer, "he said, 'I had the support of all the little people - but they were too little to reach the levers on the voting machines.'"
With all of his chips staked on the Iowa outcome, it's a fate that Edwards hopes to elude Thursday night.