Edwards in Iowa

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa, 10:30 p.m. — There’s very little that’s new about a John Edwards rally.On stage at the Val Air Ballroom, the former North Carolina Senator hits the same chords he does all across Iowa — respect for the working man, a fight against special interests and a restoration of decency in Washington.

The gestures are practiced, the endorsements just those he mentioned three nights ago and it would be hard to call Edwards’ choice of celebrity – rocker John Cougar Mellencamp – a fresh face. Even some of the supporters, like 69-year-old Joe Kucera, were right there with the Senator on his first go-around in 2004.

But is that a bad thing?

Edwards rose to the top tier buoyed by a tried and true message of populism that appealed to what remains of a Democratic base built on labor and middle-class America. It is a pitch enshrined in his personal heritage – the son of a mill worker – that Edwards uses to connect. In the midst of a three-way tie for a caucus night victory, it is clear the strategy has gained him enough ground to compete.

But can he win?

“John and Elizabeth – they’re just like your neighbors,” says Steelworkers of America member Kevin Cooper, who made the trip to Iowa from Logansport, Indiana to support Edwards’ run at the White House. “He backs labor, be backs the unions, he wants better healthcare. My man Edwards is going to come out on top, and he should come out on top.”

John Edwards, it can be argued, does not need to be new. If he were, he would not be John Edwards. Even for younger voters like Andrew Minnear and Michael Stevens, Edwards represents a Platonic form of a sense of decency they hope existed at some point before the Bush Administration. It’s a form Edwards cultivates as he draws on broad themes of return and immortal values enshrined in American culture.

Larry Castek is supporting Edwards for those very reasons. Fifty-six years old, Castek will caucus for the first time on Thursday night.

“You get caught up in it,” he says.

At times, Edwards’ support can almost seem messianic. While Senator Barack Obama preaches a new direction and Senator Hillary Clinton promises a better way of doing things, Edwards promises that the old way of doing things can save our country. He is a modern politician dressed in the simple values of an earlier time: hard work, fairness, and opportunity for all.

At least that’s what his supporters here in Iowa say.

“I’ve been going to all the other campaigns’ events, and I’m amazed at how boring and dispassionate they are,” says Cara Murphy, an Edwards volunteer and precinct captain. “At Edwards’ events it’s like going to church – people are yelling and shouting. They’re excited because they know he’s going to change America.”

But doing so requires winning the nomination, and winning the nomination demands that he eke out three or four points of support above where current poll numbers place him relative to Clinton and Obama.

If Edwards doesn’t upset in Iowa, he will miss the frenzied media momentum that gives Iowa winners a lift into New Hampshire. An Obama victory validates the Illinois Senator’s new voter strategy, and a Clinton win seals the air of inevitability. Between media focus on one candidate’s triumph and analysis of the other’s downfall, Edwards’ only hope for enough oxygen to stay in the race lies in an outright win of the Iowa caucus tomorrow night — an uphill battle since Clinton and Obama’s supporters are tied to their candidates out of loyalty or deep-seated ideological alignment.

And Edwards, in part due to his campaign four years ago but also by his own making, may be too “yesterday” for “tomorrow.”

Joe Kucera tells a cautionary tale. Loyally attending the last major rally for his candidate, he has brought his son with him — who is supporting Obama. Kucera fears the window of opportunity opened to Edwards in the closing weeks of the 2004 primary season may have closed, and reopened only to the Illinois senator.

“I campaigned hard for him in ’04,” Kucera says, emphasizing that he’d “sure like to see him be president.”

“But Edwards has been campaigning too long now,” he says. “He sounds like a broken record.”

-Zack Abrahamson