John Edwards' message throughout the campaign has been that he is the only candidate serious about fighting for average working Americans. And in the last day and a half before the Iowa caucus, Edwards was determined to show just how serious he was about winning that fight by criss-crossing Iowa in a 36-hour endurance test he christened his "Marathon for the Middle Class."
Edwards knows that the impact of such an all-nighter will be mostly symbolic. When I asked him how many people he hoped to convince at his 2:15 a.m. event in Creston, Edwards practically giggled. "Probably not that many people. I don't expect a big crowd," he said. "But what I think is more important is to show caucus-goers that I'm committed to the cause."
Such exercises in sleep deprivation have been employed by a variety of candidates over the years. Probably the most famous was former Senator Bob Dole's ill-fated "96 Hours to Victory Tour" during the 1996 presidential campaign; the tour was supposed to to prove that the then 73-year-old was, in fact, not too old to be running for President, but by hour 40 the man looked like death warmed over. That insomnia-fest ended with his concession speech after he lost to Bill Clinton. In the last election cycle former Vermont Governor Howard Dean most notably held a "Sleepless Summer Tour" at the height of his popularity. The 10-city trip stretched across more than 6,000 miles and lasted four days. Joe Trippi, who managed Dean's campaign and now advises Edwards, semi-joked Tuesday that the trip may have had something to do with his notorious scream after losing the Iowa caucuses. "[He] didn't get any sleep," says Trippi, "and it made him a little crazy."
Though it would seem obvious that Trippi, with a hand in both campaigns, would be behind Edwards' marathon campaign, he swears he wasn't. "It wasn't my idea; I'm not getting on the van for 36 hours, but he wants to do it. He wants to fight for every vote."
Fighting for every vote, as it turns out, is not very glamorous, or even stirring. Here's a snapshot of various stops along the way to give you a sense of what it's like being inside the bubble of a candidate's final push to win the Iowa caucuses, and after a while, wishing to get out.
Tuesday January 1
In what would turn out to be the longest speech of the tour, Edwards outlines his closing arguments in a wood-paneled room at the University of Iowa before a crowd of more than 500. Afterwards he holds his first press conference of the trip. One reporter asks him a question about a possible outcome of the caucuses that we all know every campaign is dreading: that Iowa, after tens of millions of dollars and months of effort, could end in a three-way tie, essentially changing nothing in the race. "If I do well in Iowa against two candidates that have raised over $100 million, over $200 million between them, and have had massive national publicity, what that means is this message of ending corporate greed, standing up for the middle class and standing up for future generations is slicing through all that noise, all that media attention and all that money and will it go on?" Edwards said, pausing to take a breath. "Absolutely it will go on."
1:25pm. On the bus
The roughly two dozen reporters that have grimly signed themselves up for this tour are greeted with lunch from Wendy's. Salads, hamburger, slightly cold fries and sodas. The regulars welcome the addition of salads, which have only appeared after the press staged a minor mutiny last week over being force-fed too much grease.
3:10pm. Fort Dodge, Iowa
The program was meant to start at 2:45pm. After introductions by State Senator Daryl Beall, Elizabeth Edwards and Iowa First Lady Mari Culver, Edwards who is renowned for his chronic lateness finally takes the stage at 3:37pm. We all start dreading that Edwards will live up to his reputation of running two hours late everywhere.
4:35pm. On the bus
Joe Trippi, Edwards' senior advisor, entertains reporters with an a capella rendition of Jay-Z's "Dead Presidents" he's learned from his kids. Really. I have a recording, but he tells me it's off the record. The buses pull out heading back to Des Moines, where we're told we'll be set free for an hour while Edwards does his daily hour-long run on the treadmill. The bus speeds south as a double rainbow frames a gorgeous sunset reflecting off Iowa's snowy farmlands.