EXETER, N.H. – Presidential candidate John Edwards (search) hopes a tightening race for the number three spot in next week's Iowa caucuses (search) means his campaign is gaining momentum, and not just there.
In a speech before a packed city hall audience Tuesday, the North Carolina senator was seemingly unfazed by recent New Hampshire polls showing his support at three percent, saying he was the one who could "beat George Bush anywhere in America."
"If you will give me a shot at George Bush, I'll give you the White House," he added, to thunderous applause and cheers.
Edwards may be trailing the other major candidates here, but he's got a real shot at pushing out Sen. John Kerry (search) of Massachusetts from a top three Iowa showing, following front-runner Howard Dean (search) and Rep. Dick Gephardt (search).
Edwards' basic strategy: a stronger-than-expcted finish in Iowa's Jan. 19 caucuses, a respectable showing in New Hampshire's Jan. 27 Democratic primary, then a big stand in South Carolina, one of seven states holding primaries the following week.
He says Dean and Kerry have a natural advantage in New Hampshire, because they're from neighboring states, just as Gephardt does in Iowa.
"I'm better known, or at least was when the race began, in South Carolina," Edwards said.
Recent polls show that Dean's lead in New Hampshire is shrinking, with retired Gen. Wesley Clark in second place and gaining.
Edwards' supporters concede he lacks a large following in New Hampshire, despite some of the energy and excitement seen at recent town-hall meetings. But they expect him to gain in the coming days, and suggest the 3 percent showed in the tracking poll understates his potential support.
"There's three tickets out of New Hampshire. A tie for third would be a ticket," said Bill Barry of Nashua, a former state representative and Democratic activist.
"I'm feeling energy on the ground building for him," Barry said.
For Edwards, passing Kerry in Iowa would give him momentum heading to New Hampshire.
Edwards has benefited from an endorsement by "The Des Moines Register" and two strong debate performances, where he distinguished himself by avoiding most of the bickering while calling on candidates to focus on Bush and the issues.
In Iowa, Dean has started targeting Edwards with television ads and speeches that criticize him as a Washington insider. Dean insists his positive vision will see him through.
Iowa voters are "scrutinizing the process more intensely," Edwards said. "That'll happen in New Hampshire after Iowa."
Edwards — unlike Clark — isn't spending much time on New Hampshire. He squeezed in a health care speech and two town hall meetings before returning to Iowa.
"There's an enormous amount of energy and excitement" in Iowa, Edwards said during a tour of a children's health care clinic. "There's clearly something happening there."