MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Maybe my judgment is permanently skewed from having watched John Edwards make his closing surge in Iowa in 2004, coming from nowhere (5 percent in the polls at this point four years ago) to almost winning the caucuses. Still, few candidates are more adept at making that all-important final argument to a political jury.
I got a glimpse Monday of how formidable Edwards still might be in a campaign cycle seemingly dominated by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Here in the quaint clapboard town hall in Bow, just outside Concord, Edwards launched his latest anti-corporate-lobbyist crusade, billed as "America Belongs to Us Week."
New Hampshire, which is fast becoming the most affluent state in New England, is not natural turf for populist politics or class-based argument. But Edwards -- particularly before small crowds (about 100 voters turned out in Bow, not an Obama- or Clinton-size throng) -- is that rare candidate who can pull off antiestablishment rhetoric with an ingratiating smile.
What stayed with me overnight were not the remarks from Edwards' prepared text. Rather, I was far more swayed by a riff that the former 2004 vice-presidential nominee launched into in response to a question about which prior presidents have stood up to entrenched interests. (By the way, Edwards, like John McCain, is a Teddy Roosevelt groupie.)
"I'm going to be critical of my own party," Edwards declared, certainly getting my attention. "One of the mistakes that we make is to believe that all we have to do is to be better at this game than [the Republicans] are. If we're better at this game than them, we can be elected and then wield power. But for what purpose? But for what purpose, if nothing changes? Except for glorifying the ego of a particular candidate, what difference does it make?"
Then Edwards continued with this refrain that contained echoes of prior speeches: "To be perfectly honest about it, my life is going to be fine no matter what happens. So is Barack Obama's. So is Hillary Clinton's. Our life is going to be fine. On the other side, Mitt Romney is going to be fine. Giuliani is going to be fine ... But [this election] should not be about any of us; it should be about the country we believe in. The democracy we want to change. Where the people who we all grew up with -- your story -- get heard."
I am not certain how well the power of this argument, which was delivered earnestly rather than in polished paragraphs, translates to the written page. But for me -- a self-confessed easy grader when it comes to trial-lawyer rhetoric -- it was a reminder of how quickly the contours of the Democratic nomination fight could change if Edwards were to win Iowa.