Edwards in Iowa: Closing With Class

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Kenneth Jarecke for TIME

John Edwards speaks to members of the United Steelworkers Local 164 in Des Moines, Iowa, on January 1, 2008.

Looking like the company owner on a tour of the factory floor, John Edwards stood Monday evening on a chair at the United Rubber Worker's East Des Moines office. For about 30 seconds before speaking he simply stood, head back, smiling, relishing the cheers and chants of "Go Johnny, go" from the more than 100 steel workers who planned on spending the remaining few days leading up to the Iowa caucuses working the phone lines to convince as many Iowans as they can to support the former North Carolina Senator.

But once he started speaking, Edwards sounded more like a union organizer than management. "I have to tell you I've never had so much fun in my life," said Edwards, in jeans and a buttoned blue blazer over a blue Oxford shirt that was open at the collar. "It is time for some truth telling, and the truth is that corporate greed is destroying this country. I believe that we have a responsibility to stand up for the sacrifice and the hard work of those generations before us."

This is Edwards' message to caucus-goers distilled. There is no talk of foreign policy. No mention of the war in Iraq. Nothing on Pakistan and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto or illegal immigration. He hardly even mentions health care or education. Edwards' final message is simple: "to make absolutely certain that our kids have a better life than we had. That's what this is all about, at the end of the day, to live up to our responsibility, to live up to what our folks did for us," Edwards said in a two-minute speech, his voice breaking, at a house party in Centerville 11 hours after his factory floor appearance.

Edwards is wasting no time in getting his point across. On the eve of the caucus, he is in the midst of a 36-hour barnstorm across Iowa that he is calling the "Marathon for the Middle Class." Along the way, he is holding 16 events all focused on this central idea that he is the only candidate with enough fight to take on the greedy lobbyists that are stealing America's future.

The populist message is one that revolves around, and is squarely directed at, blue-collar Iowans. And while it would seem to be a risk to focus so exclusively on one group, the campaign says the message of economic inequity — a middle-class version of the poverty tour with which Edwards launched his campaign in December 2006 — resonates with all kinds of Americans. "One of the things that I've seen just in the last 12 to 14 hours is the energy and excitement as I move across Iowa," Edwards told reporters Wednesday in Mount Pleasant. "And the one thing that's clear to me [is] that the people of Iowa and the people of America are unstoppable when they commit themselves to stopping these entrenched special interests."

Echoed his spokesman, Mark Kornblau: "It's not a populist, union message. It's a message that people across Iowa recognize as the truth as what's happening in this country." When asked why he doesn't bring up other issues, Kornblau added: "The style is, he takes questions at every one of these events and he knows the topics will be raised."

Edwards is neck-and-neck in the polls with rivals Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and his campaign is betting that this stark message is what will put him over the top. And though he doesn't mention her by name, his closing argument takes square aim at Clinton in particular, whom Edwards has criticized for refusing to reject money from lobbyists as he and Obama have.

"You know, they can go run their campaigns and we'll run ours," said Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to the Edwards campaign. "We're taking this thing very seriously and that people of Iowa are going to know how hard we're going to fight for every vote and what we think is at stake here and what the difference in this campaign is: that we're going to take on corporate greed for them and she's taking their money ..." and here Trippi trails off and raises his eyebrows.

The way Edwards sees it, the people standing in the way of progress are not Osama bin Laden or Kim Jong Il, not even George W. Bush and the Republicans. The evildoers that Edwards promises to vanquish — to the delight of most crowds; "Go get 'em, John" is a frequent shout from the crowd — are America's CEOs. "I see the CEO of one of the biggest health insurance companies in America making hundreds of millions of dollars last year in one year. I see Exxon Mobil making billions and billions of dollars in profit, record profits. The top 1% of Americans are taking twice as much of America's income as they did 20-25 years ago," Edwards told supporters in Fort Madison today. "The biggest corporations have an iron-fisted hold on your democracy."

The message is so streamlined that Edwards hardly talks about himself — his time as a trial lawyer or his years in the U.S. Senate or even his experiences as the 2004 Vice Presidential candidate. The only experience he talks about is his childhood as the son of a poor mill worker who had to borrow money to take him home from the hospital. "I come from a family where people worked in the mills. My grandmother had a sixth-grade education, she came from a family of sharecroppers, she worked hard all of her life. I loved her dearly," Edwards said Wednesday in Burlington. "She would have done anything for me, for my children, for my grandchildren, and my mother and father they were exactly the same way. They are no different than most of your parents and your grandparents. They worked and sacrificed so that you could have a better life."

Edwards may be worth an estimated $100 million, but his humble roots often convince people that he knows what needs to be done to fix class inequalities. The message certainly resonated with Pat Salvo, who owns his own appliance repair business in Council Bluffs. The self-proclaimed populist waited for more than an hour in subzero temperatures to greet Edwards on his midnight stop in Salvo's home town. "He represents the American dream," said Salvo, 50. "And, at the same time, he's an ordinary guy standing up for poor people. He's going after corporate America. Having grown up like us, he knows what needs to be done."