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On the ropes

If you want to "Edwards Watch" by reading the big-city newspapers or watching network television, fuhgeddaboudit.

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Here's a fact, based on an Internet-free vacation week: If you want to "Edwards Watch" by reading the big-city newspapers or watching network television, fuhgeddaboudit. Now that Barack Obama has "O-Mentum" (N.Y. Post) courtesy of Oprah Winfrey, and the Clintons are said to be squabbling (Bloomberg) over who's sinking Hillary's inevitability faster, she or he, the national press—Democratic side—is 24/7 about HC versus O-b. JE does not compute.

Inconveniently, however, John Edwards continues to be a close third in Iowa polling, meaning the press can't ignore him quite as thoroughly as, say, Joe Biden. And in Iowa, Edwards took off this week on a bus tour trying—on the last shopping days before the Jan. 3 caucuses—to muscle into the argument about what kind of president the country needs. Do we need "the one," as Oprah called Sen. Obama, a messianic figure whose "amazing grace" might lift the nation over the special interests and hoary red-blue splits? Or is Sen. Clinton more realistic when she says it "takes strength and experience to bring about change," not just a dream? Edwards argues that America needs someone who will neither elide the entrenched interests nor negotiate with them, but rather attack them head on. In short, a fighter.

It's generational. "Twenty generations of Americans have left their children a better life," Edwards says in a new speech and TV spot. But "corruption and corporate greed mean we could be the first to fail." The "we" in this statement is oldsters like the Clintons and the 54-year-old Edwards. Are "we" ready to give up and turn our mess over to Obama's new generation? That's the implicit challenge Edwards is throwing down, not to Obama's younger supporters, but to Clinton's senior ones.

It's populist. One of Edwards' most interesting, if little-known, campaign proposals is for a biennial "Citizen Congress." He'd bring together 1 million Americans for town-hall type meetings, connecting them to each other and to him "to continue the democratic process between elections."

Imagine, then, that a reform plan is stalled in Congress, with the special interests clawing at it and the Republicans filibustering. Obama might seek a bipartisan solution, Clinton incremental change—so the Edwards argument goes—but Edwards would go to the people and turn up the heat. Peace in the valley? An experienced old hand(s)? Or a pitched battle?

Edwards' one claim on this election is that he's not afraid to get it on. As a trial lawyer, he fought for his clients, he says, "with everything I had." You want to stand and fight, pick me—that's what his campaign's about now. —Bob Geary

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