On paper, John Edwards (search) has what it takes to be a stellar Democratic presidential candidate - he's a telegenic Southerner who has run a campaign that even his foes rate highly.

The problem is that although Edwards is spending nearly every waking hour on the campaign and millions of dollars running ads, he has yet to catch on with voters.

But some rivals are keeping a close watch on the first-term North Carolina senator, wondering if he still could be the surprise candidate to challenge front-runner Howard Dean (search). Time is short. Edwards has two months to turnaround his lackluster poll numbers and fulfill his promise as the party's rising star.

His book, "Four Trials (search)," hits the shelves this week and highlights his most successful cases as a plaintiff's attorney. He has won positive reviews for his strong performance in recent debates.

Although he normally avoids getting into the mud with his Democratic rivals, Edwards has picked two public battles with Dean - both over racial issues.

The senator often talks about the special responsibility he feels as a Southerner to promote racial healing and complained loudly when Dean said he's the only white candidate to talk to white audiences about race.

When Dean later said he wanted to win over Southern whites "with Confederate flags (search) in their pickup trucks," Edwards challenged the former Vermont governor during a debate, telling him he was wrong to invoke a racist symbol.

Days later, that exchange was still on the mind of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (search), who so far has declined to endorse in the Democratic primary.

"I think he did a good job in the debate when he exposed Howard's underbelly," Vilsack said. "No one else had done that."

Edwards is not the only candidate trying to become Dean's chief rival. Nearly every one of his opponents is pursuing that goal.

Edwards' advisers say they do not expect he can win Iowa or New Hampshire, but he can beat the low expectations set for him in the first two states by coming in third. He is aiming for victories in South Carolina and Oklahoma on Feb. 3, which he hopes will begin his march to the nomination.

"I see me as the positive alternative that can compete everywhere in America," Edwards said in a recent interview on his campaign bus as he traveled through northwestern Iowa. "I have people come up to me all the time at events both here and in New Hampshire telling me, 'I came in for Dean, but now I'm for you.'"

Edwards does not draw the big crowds that Dean does, but he also does not make the party elite nervous with an indignant message against the Democratic establishment. Edwards is trying to become Dean's firewall in the South and is subtly stepping up his case against Dean often without saying his name.

"We have to have both a candidate and a message that is inspiring to the American people," Edwards told voters gathered at a small-town Italian restaurant west of Des Moines. "All of us are upset with George Bush. I feel it. My wife turns the television off whenever he comes on."

This revelation draws big cheers from the crowd, who turn and beam at Elizabeth Edwards, watching her husband from the back of the room.

"But," Edwards says, trying to be heard over the laughter and clapping, "having said that, it's so important that we channel that passion into a positive vision for this country."

Edwards' ideas circulate around a theme of the people vs. the powerful. He paints President Bush as a fortunate son who looks after his rich friends at the expense of the working class.

Despite spending more than $2.6 million on campaign ads - second only to Dean - Edwards' poll numbers in New Hampshire and Iowa usually show him in single digits. He's doing better in South Carolina, but the race for that state is tight. His advisers cite the number of people unfamiliar with Edwards and the increasing number of people who say they have a favorable opinion of him.

Edwards' biggest weakness is that he is inexperienced. He has served just five years in office and his 1998 victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth (search) was his only elected race. Even his supporters acknowledge that voters may be looking for a seasoned leader.

"They are always looking for experience in a time of war," said New Hampshire state Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, who endorsed Edwards. "He doesn't have the kind of experience that an Al Gore had, in terms of a wide breadth of international interface, but he does have the right kind of personality and is willing to learn."

Then there is that baby face. Edwards is 50, but to many he looks younger.

"I think people think he's too young," said Carol Hood, chairwoman of the Calhoun County Democratic Party, who attended an Edwards event in Republican-leaning Rockwell City.

Hood said there still is time for Edwards to catch on because voters in Iowa are still making up their minds about who to support on Jan. 19, a point for which Vilsack agrees.

"Anybody who says this race is over is wrong," he said.