Edwards banks on veteran caucusgoers to pull off Iowa

Democrat John Edwards is not a celebrity, he hasn't written a best seller and he won't be smashing any glass ceilings for women or minorities.

Still, as he fights to stay in contention in Iowa's leadoff presidential contest, he does have at least one thing that Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama don't have: most of his supporters already have experience with this state's sometimes daunting system of caucuses held in each of 1,784 precincts.

Retired postmaster John Backer, 62, of Greene, is one of them. Come Jan. 3, as he has done in the past, he'll join a few dozen neighbors at the community center and stand up for Edwards. "I know almost everybody in town," Backer says. "I feel comfortable going there."

Most polls of Iowa show Edwards trailing his two rivals, yet still within the margins of error and within reach of winning. They also show that as many as three-quarters of his backers qualify as "likely caucusgoers" — that is, they've already been to a caucus.

Edwards will need every vote he can get to stay in the game. Political observers and even some Edwards advisers say the former North Carolina senator, his party's 2004 vice presidential nominee, cannot afford to repeat the second-place finish he pulled off as a fresh face in 2004.

If he doesn't win Iowa or come very close this time, "we're done," says Rob Tully, a former state party chairman and Edwards stalwart, adding he likes his friend's chances.

Though Edwards has been cultivating Iowans since 2004, he last led the Democratic field here in August. Iowa analysts attribute his stall to the "three Hs" — his $400 haircut, 28,000-square-foot home and work for a hedge fund.

"He had a terrible spring and summer. By late summer he had stopped any further slide, but he hasn't been able to reverse it," says Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Iowa's Drake University.

One reason is that Edwards had planned to be the main alternative to Clinton. Instead he's one of two main alternatives, and he's being overshadowed by the other one.

"The conversation is really about Obama and Clinton," says Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "Edwards hasn't managed to force the debate in his direction. I don't see him getting much traction."

Edwards has run a storm-the-barricades campaign this year driven by rhetoric about economic unfairness and destructive corporate influence. He was, for a time, Clinton's sharpest critic. But Edwards has adopted a lighter tone recently as Clinton and Obama have sparred. His theme this week: "America rising."

Edwards is aiming for a late surge here like the one he had in 2004. Back then, however, he did not face famous rivals and megawatt surrogates such as Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton.

Not that Edwards is entirely bereft of star power — actors Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon are on the trail for him this week. But mostly his campaign is about basics: an endorsement from U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, an army of union members, that solid base of likely caucusgoers, visits to all 99 Iowa counties, and an 80-page policy book sent to more than 200,000 households.

Jennifer O'Malley Dillon, Edwards' Iowa director, laughs as she runs down the list, but she's serious. "Oprah has a great following and that's part of the process, as is Bill Clinton," she says. "But at the end of the day, Iowa caucusgoers make a very informed choice. They are waiting to get the mail, to see what candidates are saying."

Furthermore, Dillon and Tully say, Edwards is the second choice of many who think Clinton is not electable and Obama doesn't have enough experience. And second choices count in caucuses.

Candidates need a minimum level of support to qualify for a convention delegate on caucus night, usually 15% of the people in the room. If they don't meet that "viability" threshold, their backers must pick someone else or persuade other people to join them.

Like Clinton and Obama, Edwards has made a how-to-caucus video. It's a film-noir cartoon starring precinct captains Jane and Joe.

"Joe sets his TV to record the Orange Bowl," the narrator says against a jazzy score. He leaves for the caucus with a calculator, Edwards signs and fresh bread: "His homemade bread is perfectly positioned. Everyone can see it and smell it, especially the undecideds."

When the caucus chairman says some groups are too small to be viable, "Joe springs into action" and talks up Edwards to potential converts. The cartoon ends with jazz giving way to Hail to the Chief.