DUBUQUE, IOWA, Dec. 28, 2007 -- In a wide-ranging, free-wheeling interview with Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards with ABC News Friday afternoon, the former North Carolina senator labeled "ridiculous" comments made by the Obama campaign that seemed to link former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's assassination to Sen. Hillary Clinton's vote to authorize the use of force against Iraq, embraced Sen. Barack Obama's politics over Clinton's, and said an anti-Obama flier from a pro-Clinton union was "misleading" and "deceptive."
Edwards also detailed his conversation with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf from Thursday in which he told that country's leader he needs to allow "independent international inspectors into Pakistan to determine the facts of what happened around the former prime minister's assassination. That kind of transparent process is the only way there's going to be any credibility."
ABC News spoke to Edwards on his way to his "closing argument" speech in Dubuque in which the candidate argued that his aggressive populism is necessary for the country, a message that he summed up as: "We have to stop the corporate greed that's killing the middle class in America."
Edwards told a friendly crowd at the Colt Drum & Bugle Corps Center in downtown Dubuque that "if we elect another president appointed by the status quo -- from either party -- the middle-class will fall further behind and our children will pay the price. ... Real change is going to take a real fight. It always does."
Implicit in his speech were criticisms of Clinton and Obama, with whom Edwards is locked in a three-way fight, according to local polls. Edwards' crowds seem to be growing, and anecdotally other campaigns say they see an uptick in his support in their internal campaign-tracking polls.
"To get real change, we need a president who will stand up against the big corporations and powerful interests that control Washington. Nobody who takes their money and defends the broken system is going to bring change," Edwards said, in a shot at the former first lady.
"And unfortunately," Edwards continued in his speech, turning his sights to Obama, "nobody who thinks we can just sit down and talk them into compromise is going to bring change either."
Edwards acknowledged in the interview that he was projecting a sunnier demeanor in these closing weeks of the campaign than previously when it came to criticism of his rivals. But he insisted his language against "the entrenched interests" is just "as aggressive and passionate."
Friday morning at a forum for undecided voters in Independence, Iowa, Edwards repeated his implicit criticism of Obama, saying any candidate who thinks he or she can invite corporate America to the table and achieve real results for Americans "is living in never-never land."
So he believes Barack Obama lives in never-never land?
"If he believes that, yes," Edwards said. "It's a little hard for me to tell sometimes based on the way he talks about this. I've heard him say he would give stakeholders a seat at the table. I assume he's talking about oil companies, drug companies and insurance companies."
In response, the Obama campaign pointed to an interview Edwards gave to the liberal website MyDD.com in Feburary, where Edwards was asked if he'd bring into the healthcare debate "both corporations and labor and healthcare groups and doctors" and he responded "I think you try to bring everybody to the table. You want their participation, you want to make the system work for everybody."
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, "Edwards is ramping up his attacks as the caucus draws near but his new rhetoric on 'not negotiating or compromising or working with the powerful interests' is a sharp u-turn from what was once a quite conciliatory view towards those same powerful interests."
Asked during the interview if he thought Obama or Clinton would be better at bringing about change were he not in the race, Edwards indicated his preference was Obama.
"One of them believes change is necessary and the system doesn't work, and the other defends the system," he said.
But Edwards had plenty critical to say about Obama as well, assailing comments made Friday by Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod that seemed to link Clinton's October 2002 vote to authorize the war in Iraq -- a vote Edwards cast as well -- with Bhutto's assassination. "She was a strong supporter of the war in Iraq, which I submit is one of the reasons we were diverted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and al Qaeda, who may still have been players in this event," Axelrod said.
"It's ridiculous," Edwards said. "It's a ridiculous stretch. I think in times of international crisis -- which this clearly is -- what America needs to be doing and serious presidential candidates need to be doing is providing an atmosphere of strength and calm. We need to be a calming influence and not stoking the fire and certainly not be talking about the politics of this."
Edwards also dismissed comments from another Democratic presidential hopeful, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who Friday called for Musharraf to step down from power. "Some of my Democratic opponents have misplaced faith in Musharraf," Richardson said. "Like the Bush administration, they cling to the misguided notion that Musharraf can be trusted as an ally to fight terrorism."
"I haven't misplaced faith in Musharraf," Edwards said. "Musharraf has lots of problems, as we all know. And we have to keep the pressure on him. But I also think that a serious presidential candidate in a moment of crisis like this needs to show calm … and not be thinking about the politics of this."
Edwards took issue with a flier printed by a union supporting Clinton, AFSCME, which criticizes Obama's health care plan in part by using an Edwards quote criticizing the plan for not covering 15 million Americans, calling it "deceptive."
"By criticizing Sen. Obama and using me as a vehicle for the criticisms -- without saying that they're supporting Sen. Clinton and not me -- I think it's misleading," Edwards said.
His campaign bus, the Mainstreet Express, was met in Dubuque by a hometown favorite, the first lady of the state of Iowa, Mari Culver, who has endorsed Edwards.
Does that mean Gov. Chet Culver is secretly supporting Edwards? He wouldn't say.
"I'm not gonna touch that," he said laughing, as he walked off.
With Richard Coolidge, Katie Hinman, Raelyn Johnson with the Edwards campaign, Sarah Amos with the Richardson campaign, and Sunlen Miller with the Obama campaign.