The substantive differences between Barack Obama and John Edwards once appeared not that great. But in his next-to-last destination on the 16-stop, 36-hour "Marathon for the Middle Class" tour, Edwards seemed hellbent on distinguishing himself from the Illinois Senator.
His speech to a totally packed coffeeshop (audience members nervously discussed a possible fire code violation) had the energy of a candidate who realizes everything could be over tomorrow. The message was clear and relentless: Corporate greed is killing the country and I'm the only candidate with the willpower to change that.
And though he never mentioned Obama by name, Edwards repeatedly referenced what he saw as his rival's conciliatory "seat at the table" attitude toward corporations.
"We'll take away power from corporations by ripping it right of their hands," Edwards stressed. "FDR was vilified by big corporate America-- they hated the guy, but he didn't care."
The anti-coporate salvo later took more direct swipes at both Obama and Clinton. "You need somebody who is passionate about the fight as opposed to somebody who is too academic and too philosophical or someone who knows what a politician needs to say."
"Those people," Edwards warned, "Will always do the political thing."
The implied criticism of Clinton as a calculating politician seems almost obligatory at this point. But the idea that an overly-intellectual Obama will hem and haw his way toward stagnation is new terrain. It was met with silence at Grinnelll, a community whose economy and culture is largely based around the liberal arts Grinnell College
"I was pretty surprised that he said that at this setting," said Emily Guenther a senior at Grinnell. "It seemed like a pretty false opposition to say intellectuals can't be passionate and can't be populist."
Many students, though, were excited by Edward's message of social justice. "He comes across as much more genuine and passionate when he's giving speeches than when he's on TV," concluded Suzanne Polivy, a Grinnell senior.
Indeed, Edwards crisply related the fact that millions of Americans live without health insurance and "children live in the streets and in cars while the profits of Exxon Mobile soar." Tomorrow will determine whether such stark imagery will triumph over the more abstract visions of Clinton and Edward's progressive foe Obama.