Yepsen: Don't Rule Out Surges by Edwards, Thompson

There's a lot of buzz about the battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for Democratic caucus votes in Iowa. And there's also a lot of talk about the fight between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee on the Republican side.

Can Clinton recover and overtake Obama's narrow lead? Can Romney stop Huckabee to reclaim the top spot in the GOP race? Buzzzzzz.

All that tends to overlook two other candidates: Democrat John Edwards and Republican Fred Thompson. They're both showing real potential to come up fast here at the end.

One reason is the indecision of a lot of caucus-goers in both parties. This cycle, polls have shown around half the likely caucus-goers in each party could still be persuaded to change their minds. In other words, the so-called front-runners haven't closed the sale.

Both Edwards and Thompson are pouring time and resources into Iowa these days. Edwards built a respectable organization in Iowa in his 2004 campaign. He was the front-runner here for a while, then gradually slipped as the attention focused on celebrity candidates Clinton and Obama.

But Clinton got off to a slow start and was never as popular here as she was around the country. Lately she, her campaign and her husband Bill have made mistakes that have left her struggling to right her top-heavy ship. Her campaign believes weekend endorsements by the Des Moines Register, Congressman Leonard Boswell and former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey will pump some new energy into her campaign.

By contrast, Edwards and his people never quit, no matter how bleak things got in recent months. On Monday, he picked up Iowa first lady Mari Culver's endorsement. And he still shows enough strength in rural Iowa that Obama is devoting considerable time to those areas these days in an effort to take some of the anti-Hillary vote from Edwards.

Proof of Edwards' uptick and Obama's jitters about him came Monday in Spencer, when Obama told a crowd: "Senator Edwards, who is a good guy, he's been talking a lot about 'I'm going to fight the lobbyists and the special interests in Washington.' Well, the question you have to ask is: Were you fighting for (citizens) when you were in the Senate?"

(Edwards has changed his position on several issues since leaving the Senate, and his rhetoric has become a lot more populist than his voting record was, especially on the Iraq war. Obama, who likes to fashion himself as Mr. Positive, wouldn't be attacking him like that if Edwards was road kill.)

It may also suggest Obama's internal polls are showing the Illinois senator has peaked. Some of Obama's people also suggest that a vote for Edwards is a wasted vote because he's a one-trick pony who can perform only in Iowa. They say Edwards has so little campaign infrastructure in the subsequent states that he couldn't capitalize on a win in the state, while Obama could. It's a suggestion Edwards strongly denies.

On the GOP side, Romney has slipped, and Huckabee has surged in Iowa and nationally. Other candidates such as Rudy Giuliani and John McCain, who never seemed to figure out just how they want to play Iowa, have effectively bypassed the state in favor of contests elsewhere. That seemed a wise strategy because it would help Huckabee defeat Romney here, thereby derailing his New Hampshire momentum and making that state easier for Giuliani and McCain.

But after a sluggish start, Thompson has sensed an opening in Iowa, and he's moving decisively to exploit it. The opening arises from a combination of Romney's changes of position on social issues and Huckabee's stumbles on foreign-policy questions and immigration.

After his winning performance in the Des Moines Register's debate, Thompson has embarked on a lengthy bus tour of the state. During these final days, his campaign says he'll hold events in 50 communities and will visit 54 of the 99 counties.

On Monday, he picked up the surprise endorsement of Congressman Steve King. Of all the endorsements flying around these days, that one could move the most numbers. It sends a powerful signal from one of Iowa's most conservative leaders to others on the right around the state: We've now got a horse we can ride.

DAVID YEPSEN can be reached at dyepsen@dmreg.com or (515) 284-8545.

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