COLUMBUS, Ohio – As he heads into a 10-state round of primaries that could seal the fate of his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, John Edwards (search) faces daunting odds but also finds his crowds and energy up as he takes a sharply populist message to the industrial heartland.
"Can we get a few more people in this room?" Edwards joked, gazing across a jammed ballroom in Cleveland. "All you have to do is look across this room to know with absolute certainty that the people of America want this campaign to go on."
With the race for the nomination, as a practical matter, narrowed to a contest with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), Edwards clearly faces an uphill climb.
The establishment powers of the Democratic party like the AFL-CIO (search) and much of the party's official leadership have jumped on Kerry's bandwagon. Trailing badly in polls in most of the states holding March 2 primaries, Edwards has been forced to target selected states — and in some cases regions of states — in a bid to keep his campaign alive.
That's had no discernible effect on Edwards' relentlessly upbeat campaign.
There is clear interest in the Edwards campaign as he stumps through Super Tuesday states. In St. Paul, Minn., Edwards packed more than 400 people into a hall, filled an overflow hall and saw that crowd spill out onto a parking lot.
"That was Iowa on steroids," he exulted, boarding his campaign plane after the St. Paul event, referring to his surprising second-place showing in Iowa's leadoff precinct caucuses.
His traveling press corps is growing, and large and noisy rallies are getting strong local attention.
On the stump, Edwards stubbornly refuses to be pushed off his message that the nation's trade policies favor big business at the expense of working families, and he works overtime to link Kerry to those policies, arguing that Kerry voted for all of the trade deals that have drained thousands of jobs and driven down wages.
"Senator Kerry has a legitimate position," Edwards said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "It's just different than mine. Senator Kerry voted for all these trade agreements."
Kerry sharply disputes that view, arguing that the two have very similar positions on the issue and Edwards has chosen to seek distinctions only in the heat of a campaign. Edwards rejects that argument.
In an interview with Newsweek magazine, Edwards said that with exception of a trade deal with China, "we've been on opposite sides of the fence on this issue."
With much of the party's establishment in Kerry's camp, Edwards is seeking any edge he can find. Sweeping through Minnesota, which holds caucuses March 2, Edwards met with about 30 key organizers who had backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search).
With Dean out of the race, Edwards argues he's the most logical candidate to fill that antiestablishment void.
"We are definitely reaching out to Dean voters," said Edwards. "My message to them is I'm the person who has the fresh ideas. I'm the person who wants to change America and change Washington."
A group of former staffers and volunteers for Dean in New York launched a web site Sunday that will act as a coordination point for Dean enthusiasts who wish to support Edwards.
Although the site is not officially connected to Dean's campaign, its aim is to bring "enough core supporters of Governor Dean to Senator Edwards to put him over the top in March 2 primary votes and beyond," said Eric Schmeltzer, Dean's former deputy director in New York.
"I think he's the future of the Democratic Party," said 56-year-old D. L. Inman, of Atlanta. "Whether he gets it this time or not, if they want to build the party, he's the future."