MILWAUKEE – John Edwards (search) and his campaign raced through the full range of emotions on a Wisconsin primary day that dawned with them on the brink of extinction but ended with an energized campaign itching to fight on.
Strapped for money, Edwards did virtually no independent polling so his campaign arose Tuesday facing only the evidence in the public polling. Virtually all those surveys spread gloom in Edwards' camp, suggesting that front-runner John Kerry (search) was about to enjoy yet another primary blowout.
Tired of answering questions about how long he could survive, Edwards' aides simply released a post-primary campaign schedule and sheltered the North Carolina senator from reporters for most of the day.
But by day's end, the candidate was telephoning reporters to gloat. Kerry held on for a narrow win, but the surprisingly strong showing gave Edwards new fuel in his bid for the Democratic nomination.
"I think the voters of Wisconsin made it clear they want a real choice," Edwards said in an interview with The Associated Press. "They responded to my message of optimism and bringing change to America."
"Two days ago every poll showed me behind 25 to 30 points," he said, vowing to press ahead to the next round of contests, a 10-state showdown on March 2.
Even as the results were being tallied, an upbeat Edwards spoke to hundreds of cheering backers in a community center on Milwaukee's blue-collar south side.
"The people of Wisconsin spoke loudly and clearly," Edwards said. "They want a debate, they want this campaign to continue."
The mood wasn't that way as Tuesday dawned.
Edwards blew through a round of handshaking at a Milwaukee diner in about 10 minutes, shrugging off questions shouted by reporters. "We're not doing press now," he muttered as he was hustled off.
At the University of Wisconsin, Edwards sprinted through the student union for another quick round of handshakes and autographs before pleading, "I need every one of you," to the knot of assembled students. He spent all of 11 minutes in the building before the 90-minute ride back to Milwaukee to await the primary results.
But the mood began to lift as word of his surprisingly strong showing began to trickle out. And in a round of satellite interviews with 11 TV stations in New York, Minnesota and California, he dismissed efforts by Democratic Party leaders to bring a quick end to the nominating season.
Edwards was flying back to Washington late Tuesday.
A series of events came together to give Edwards a significant boost in the closing days of the campaign.
Throughout the primary season, Edwards consistently has gotten solid reviews for a polished and relentlessly upbeat campaign message, which he built on during a debate Sunday in Milwaukee.
Exit polls suggested that six of 10 voters made up their minds in the last week and ratings numbers showed heavy viewership of the debate in the state's major population centers, seeming to give Edwards a boost.
The surveys said three-fourths of his supporters decided on a candidate in the last week — half in the last three days — with voters tuning in just as Edwards hit his stride at Sunday's debate.
Edwards also was endorsed by newspapers in Madison and Milwaukee, largest in the state.
While avoiding the relentless attacks of his rivals, Edwards sharpened his message in the days before the primary to challenge both Kerry and Howard Dean (search) on trade. He stumped relentlessly among workers who lost their jobs to overseas competition, warning that both Kerry and Dean backed the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The exit polls, conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks, said jobs and the economy topped the list of voter concerns, and three-fourths of those questioned said the nation's trade policy is costing jobs. Wisconsin has lost 74,000 manufacturing jobs since President Bush took office.
More than half of Edwards' voters said the economy and jobs were the top issue. While Kerry won 2-to-1 among Democrats, Edwards easily won among independents and especially among the one in 10 voters who were Republicans. That bolsters Edwards' claim that he's the better candidate to face Bush in the general election.
Three in 10 of Edwards' supporters said a positive approach to the campaign was appealing. In addition, only one-third of Edwards' voters said they were angry with Bush, compared to half of Kerry's backers.