WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – John Edwards (search), claiming momentum a week before the first test of Democratic presidential candidates, warned Tuesday that fresh criticism aimed at him by rival Howard Dean (search) could backfire.
"What people are hungering for here in Iowa is a positive, uplifting campaign of hope, which is what my campaign is about," Edwards said as he prepared to visit a retirement community to tout his plan for expanded health care coverage.
Dean, the front-runner among the nine major candidates, has singled out Edwards in new television ads and in his speeches. The former Vermont governor contends that Edwards is a Washington insider, although Edwards has been in the Senate just one term.
"If the people of Iowa want somebody who has been in politics for 20 years and knows how to engage in sniping against other candidates, they've got other choices," Edwards said. "That's not me."
The level of criticism rose as the campaign for the Democratic nomination neared the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19 and New Hampshire primary on Jan. 27. Edwards said he will stay above the bickering, contending voters are looking for a positive vision. The latest attacks from Dean are not a surprise, he said, because he senses momentum as voters begin to focus on the race.
"We've got a lot of energy and excitement around this campaign," Edwards said. "There's a lot of movement going on and I'm sure he sees that and that's his response."
Private campaign polling showed Edwards may be the only candidate in the field with momentum, although he is far back in the pack. Most polls show Dean and Dick Gephardt at the top the field, with John Kerry ranked third and Edwards following him.
For Edwards, a surge past Kerry into third place in Iowa would be a boost to his national campaign. He has sought to bolster his standing with the endorsement of the Des Moines Register, the state's largest newspaper, and by staying out of the bickering between other candidates.
Although Edwards said he would avoid sniping at other contenders, he leveled subtle barbs at Dean and Gephardt as he touted his health care plan, noting that some of his rivals would end a tax cut for middle-class families to pay for their proposals.
"In the remaining days left until the caucuses, I encourage you to ask candidates about their plans' details," he said.
Edwards' positive message may be working, especially in rural, blue-collar areas that should be Gephardt's strength.
Karen Illingworth of Newton, Iowa, whose husband is a Maytag retiree, lives in a neighborhood dotted with Edwards yard signs. She told union organizers knocking on her door for Gephardt that she was unimpressed with the Missouri congressman.
"I don't have anything against the man personally, but in my opinion he's not going to beat George Bush," Illingworth said. "He stood in the Rose Garden and put his arm around Bush as they went off to war."
Illingworth said she was leaning toward Edwards, who had impressed her with his positive approach.
"He's turned my head in these debates," she said. "He's the one guy focused on the right guy: Bush."