Edwards Fights to Stay Relevant

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Adam Hunger / Reuters

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards acknowledges supporters at his New Hampshire primary night rally in Manchester

John Edwards has been here before — literally. He doesn't remember it, but surveying the crowd in Winnacunnet High School in Hampton this week, Edwards was looking at a whole new crop of students from the ones he addressed here nearly four years ago to the day. "Really? I was there?" Edwards asked laughing when I reminded him Tuesday he'd visited the school before, his voice hoarse from the all-night, 36-hour bus tour he finished earlier that morning. "I wish I could remember that clearly, but I don't. I've done too many campaign events this week."

Edwards pushed as hard as he could ahead of the New Hampshire primary, holding more than 20 events in four days to make his populist pitch that he is the only genuine "change" candidate in the race. But after a surprise second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, the former North Carolina Senator failed to parlay that momentum into a stronger-than-expected showing in the New Hampshire primary. Edwards came in third place, garnering around 17% of the vote behind Hillary Clinton's 39% and Barack Obama's 37%. "Up until now one half of 1% of the country has voted," Edwards told supporters in Manchester Tuesday night. "Ninety-nine percent plus have not voted and we need to hear from them. We have had too much in America of people's voices not being heard."

And as he was at the high school, the former vice presidential candidate has been in almost this exact same position before. In 2004 he won an insurgent silver in Iowa only to place a brutal fourth in New Hampshire, winning just one primary after that, his home state of South Carolina, before dropping out. "We're much stronger than we were last time, that's clear," Edwards said in an interview with TIME. "I mean we have more support, we have better organization and I'm very encouraged by all that." His third place showing in New Hampshire this time around, though, still makes it a challenge for him to regain momentum going into South Carolina, Nevada and beyond in a crowded three-person field — a field that up until now has not worked to his advantage.

To a certain extent, Edwards is running on a Jerry Brown model to win the nomination. The former California governor gave Hillary's husband, Bill Clinton, a scare in 1992 before a gaffe forced Brown to bow out. Like Edwards, Brown was largely ignored by the media until his grassroots campaign and populist message caught on in late March. Edwards is a much stronger and more credible candidate than Brown, who ran as a quirky outsider, but there are a lot of similarities in their messages: Brown ran on a platform of campaign finance reform, pledging to end the "Stop-and Shop for the monied special interests"; Edwards has focused his campaign on fighting corporate greed and restoring the middle class. "I don't think we're going to have meaningful change in this country unless we have a President that's willing to fight the entrenched special interests," Edwards said.

That year, Brown won five primaries and forced former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas from the race before losing Michigan and New York to Clinton. But in many ways Brown had an advantage Edwards does not: an elongated schedule. Brown's candidacy surged in March, well after the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. This cycle more than 20 states will hold primaries on February 5, picking 2,075 convention delegates — or 51% of those needed to win the nomination. "Once this thing gets down to two the press always spend more time on the alternative," said Joe Trippi, a senior advisor to Edwards. "Look at Jerry Brown and Bill Clinton. Once it got down to two, Jerry Brown started kicking Bill Clinton's ass."

Unfortunately for Edwards, though, one of the front-runners must stumble before he has that opportunity, and his hopes that Clinton would be the one to drop out were totally dashed with her surprising victory Tuesday. Edwards has also been hampered by money woes. Both Clinton and Obama have raised more than $100 million to Edwards' just $30 million as of September 30, the most recent data available. In order to compete Edwards accepted public financing, a deal that places severe limitations on his ability to keep up with the two celebrity candidates. Instead, Edwards has largely been relying on outside groups funded privately and by unions, and the campaign claims they have seen record online fund raising since Iowa. "Yesterday was our largest fund-raising day online or close to it," Edwards said. "We'll have plenty of money, money won't be an issue."

In the meantime, his campaign said there is a silver lining to having a three-person field. "We beat Hillary in Iowa, she beat us here. Obama beat her in Iowa, she beat him here," said Jonathan Prince, Edwards' top strategist. "If you have these results on February 5, no one's the nominee. No one's anywhere near 50 percent... And we think over the long haul we're going to be very competitive"

Edwards is still betting that the message of change — a message represented by both him and Obama — will decide the campaign. "The two change candidates in Iowa got nearly 70% of the vote between them," Trippi said. "The two change candidates in New Hampshire received nearly 60% of the vote." They are betting that if they can last, they can swing all those votes against Clinton. But, then again, so is Obama.

—with reporting by Gilbert Cruz/Manchester