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« Admin Faces United Hill Front | Blog Home Page | Dems' Tough Road In MS »

Is Edwards In The Hunt?

It has become conventional wisdom that the Democratic presidential race is a contest between Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards. The common phrase: The three are in a statistical tie. Regardless of whether that statement is accurate, Edwards may be in a better position than his opponents.

Be clear on one point: John Edwards is in third place in public opinion polls. There is no statistical tie for first. The latest RCP Iowa Average shows Obama leading with 29.8%, followed by Clinton at 26.3% and Edwards at 23%. Obama and Clinton are statistically tied for first. Clinton and Edwards are statistically tied for second. But Edwards, 6.8 points behind Obama, is not statistically tied for first.

In fact, Edwards has not led a poll in Iowa since a Time Magazine survey in late August, when he earned 29% of respondents' support. He has been mired in third place in most recent polls, occasionally tying with Clinton (in a Research 2000 poll for the Quad City Times over the weekend) or leading Obama by a few points (in an Iowa State University in mid-November).

Still, as anyone will tell you, it is difficult if not impossible to poll Iowa caucus-goers. In a state with a population of more than 3 million, finding the perhaps 150,000 voters who will attend a Democratic caucus next month is difficult. Campaigns vie for those who have caucused before. Edwards, having run in the state before, has stronger support among previous caucus attendees than Clinton or Obama, both of whom are leaning on those who have not yet attended a caucus. Those voters are not guaranteed to show up on caucus night, leading to the assumption that every Edwards backer who has caucused before is worth more than every Obama or Clinton backer who has not.

For months, Edwards has launched the toughest attacks on front-running Clinton, pointing to her support for the war in Iraq, her failed health care initiative of 1993 and her position on NAFTA, as well as a host of other issues on which the two disagree. But now, just weeks before the caucuses, Obama and Clinton have taken to squabbling, whether over a Clinton supporter's assertions that Obama's past drug use will be an issue or Clinton's own charges that Obama's health care proposal does not cover as many people as hers would. The dialogue, at times, has gotten downright nasty.

Enter the kinder, gentler John Edwards. In 2004, nice-guy Edwards catapulted to a surprise second-place finish along with John Kerry in the Iowa caucuses after similar squabbling derailed Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt. Edwards' team has worked not only to foment unrest between Clinton and Obama, but also to portray their candidate as a fresh, positive face.

The media has taken note: Along with a cover story in Newsweek (Cover header: "The Sleeper"), he earned a big write-up in the Wall Street Journal (Headline: "Not-So-Dark Horse") and a positive appearance on ABC's "This Week" over the weekend. That appearance was marked by Edwards' sticking to a friendlier message, both more upbeat than he has demonstrated so far in the campaign and sunnier than the disposition of either Clinton or Obama.

So John Edwards is not in a statistical tie for first place in Iowa. But given his solid foundation of experienced caucus-goers and his closing argument that emphasizes a more positive message than his rivals, that may not matter. Edwards could be a surprise in Iowa, for the second cycle in a row.