POCAHONTAS, Iowa — Former Sen. John Edwards isn’t drawing record crowds and doesn’t have the novelty of being a political newbie or a potential history-maker. But voters here are nodding their heads when he says that nominating him is the only way to bring real change to the White House.
The North Carolina Democrat evokes a familiar message that puts voters at ease, subtly reminding them at stops in Onawa, Sioux City and across Iowa, “I know how this works.”
People turning out to his events remember him from 2004, and many attended the caucus on his behalf to help him place a surprising second in Iowa behind Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
“It’s pretty much a repeat for me,” said Pat Murrane, a farmer from Scranton. “I caucused for him the last time, and I’ll do it again.”
Joe Boyle, an electrician from Missouri Valley, said he plans to reprise his 2004 caucus support for Mr. Edwards because the nation’s problems have “only gotten worse” since then.
Mr. Edwards, campaigning across the state this week, regularly focuses in on knowing Iowa from his last presidential bid.
“I’ve been in Pocahontas before. This is not my first trip here. In fact, I remember staying at the Chief Motel,” he said, grinning as the voters gathered in the Family Fun Zone for his speech groaned at the image.
He’s locked in a tight race for January’s Iowa caucus, battling Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as the favorite candidate.
Crowds here flock to Mr. Obama like a curiosity, and many of the hundreds at each event — even some Republicans — say they will consider supporting the Illinois senator. But they are not all voters.
Mr. Edwards gets fewer supporters turning out, usually between 100 and 150 but they are all likely caucus goers. His events are packed with teachers, farmers and nurses, and the average age hovers at about 50.
Mr. Edwards said Democrats “cannot bet the ranch on one state” in 2008, and “it shouldn’t come down to Ohio.” He doesn’t come right out and question the electability of the other candidates, but his Virginia-based adviser on rural voters, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, says it in plain terms.
“Hillary Clinton can’t win where I come from,” Mr. Saunders said. “It’s a joke for her to even try. … If the Democrats want to win, Edwards is their guy.”
Mr. Saunders says Iowa is 40 percent rural, but “85 percent rural thinking,” and said he is angry at the decline of America’s family farms.
Mr. Edwards promises that he would revitalize towns like Onawa, yesterday outlining his plan to create new “green-collar” jobs at places like wind-turbine plants and implement training academies at the high-school level to train young people for good-paying jobs.
Some accuse him of abandoning the sunny optimism from his 2004 campaign for an angrier message. But Mr. Edwards dismisses that:
“There is nothing negative about being outraged about what these people have done to America,” he said at a diner in Denison.
In Jefferson, he said candidates need more than “hope.”
“The way to bring change in this country is not to compromise and negotiate with the entrenched powers in Washington. … I know that I have the fight, the backbone and the toughness that’s necessary to take that fight on and win,” Mr. Edwards said.
In speeches from Des Moines to Clear Lake, Mr. Edwards creates a narrative — he understands Iowa values, having grown up in North Carolina — and talks about how his refusal to take contributions from lobbyists is the first step to fighting Washington interests.
The “change” message is resonating in Iowa, said Becky Greenwald, the Democratic county chairman in Dallas County.
“I don’t think very many folks here probably even personally know a lobbyist,” she said.