Las Vegas, NV - As he pinballs and caroms through Nevada union halls, vet centers and community meeting rooms packed with cheering, sometimes fervent crowds vowing to stand for him in this coming Saturday's caucuses, Democratic candidate John Edwards is showing absolutely no inclination toward quietly fading from the 2008 presidential race.
Though written off by much of the media and the punditocracy as the third-running and under-financed national contender behind rivals Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the former North Carolina senator seems nevertheless buoyed by a cushion of support from organized labor, as well as from some statewide polls that put him within a few points of striking distance behind his two higher-profile opponents.
As a pulsating crowd of hundreds of union-jacketed supporters jam-packed into the local Carpenters Union hall Thursday night repeatedly stood on their feet and chanted "Go, John, Go!", a beaming Edwards, wearing jeans under his blue blazer, proclaimed himself a serious contender in the coming Democratic primaries. "The other night in the debate," he said referring to Tuesday's televised Vegas stand-off among the candidates, "a lot of caucus voters realized that contrary to what the media's been telling them for the last year there's not two, but rather three candidates in this race."
With a rocking soundtrack of Mellencamp and Springsteen blaring through the halls and meeting rooms, and with the candidate's unabashedly anti-corporate populist pitch all of a sudden deeply resonating with national hand-wringing over a possible recession, Edwards' events in this relatively union-rich state sometimes take on the tone and atmosphere of some sort of secular religious revival.
Grandmas who work in factories and who have two children deployed in Iraq are brought forward to give personal testimony on the mistreatment inflicted on them by their employers. Middle-aged working-class men in baseball caps plead with Edwards to do something, anything to stem the export of jobs. And even a 9-year old boy popped up asking the candidate if he will "save the world" by getting rid of the "smoke" caused by so many polluting factories.
"It's not everyday that a politician can understand the importance of unions," veteran carpenter Alex Gonzalez said as he introduced Edwards to the cranked-up crowd. And then with his voice cracking from emotion, he added: "And it just so happens this man is currently running for president of the United States."
Edwards appeared on the stage as a conquering hero and, brimming with confidence and determination, he immediately brought the crowd to its feet when he vowed with a rising voice and an extended right arm: "When I'm president, and when it becomes necessary... to go on strike, to be out walking that picket line - when I'm president--nobody, but nobody is gonna cross that picket line!"
While Edward's Nevada base is rock-solid organized labor, not even close to a majority of Nevada unions have lined up with him. When his campaign began to lag earlier this year, the long expected endorsements of the powerful Culinary workers and the Service Employees (SEIU) never materialized. They recently went with Obama. Meanwhile, the teachers union and the public employees in AFSCME lined up with Clinton.
But union members don't always vote with their leadership and that's one factor Edwards is counting on. Apart from the formal endorsement of the 12,000 members Carpenters Union, Edwards is hoping to siphon off rank-and-file members of other unions attracted by his increasingly fiery denunciations of what he calls the "corporate stranglehold on America." Indeed, among the audience Wednesday night were numerous supporters wearing the colors of the SEIU. "Everyone knows our union wanted Edwards from the beginning but settled for Obama when it looked like he had a better chance," said one long-time SEIU member at the Edwards rally. "A lot of us are going to caucus for John."
Even with Edwards' strong showing in the January 4 Iowa caucuses, placing second a nose ahead of Hillary Clinton, the conventional political math makes him a long-shot to win the nomination. He placed a distant third a handful of days later in the New Hampshire primary and most national soundings show Edwards lagging as much as 20 points behind the front-runners. A strong showing here on Saturday and an equal demonstration of support a week later in the South Carolina primaries seem a pre-requisite for Edwards entering the February 5 "Tsunami Tuesday --when almost two dozen states will vote--with any shred of viability.
But former Michigan congressman and Edwards' campaign manager David Bonior told The Huffington Post that "we're in this all the way, not only through February 5th, but into June and into the convention and picking up delegates all the way."
There may be more than standard campaign bravado behind Bonior's bold prediction. Edwards, in fact, doesn't have to win the nomination in order to win a similarly striking victory. If neither Obama nor Clinton can win a clean majority of nominating delegates going into the late summer Democratic convention, and if Edwards can keep scoring at least in the double-digits throughout the primaries, he could wind up with enough delegates to empower him as kingmaker, as the candidate with enough convention floor votes to sway the nomination to whom he pleases.
It's hardly a strategy that Bonior would confirm. But neither would he deny it when asked directly by the HuffPost. "I can tell you this much," Bonior said. "We're going to be marching into that convention with a whole lot of delegates."