John Edwards has heard the question for nearly a month from cable television correspondents, national newspaper reporters and small-town scribes. On this night in southwestern Missouri, it comes after a rally at a Teamsters hall, where the Democratic presidential candidate has just brought union workers, teachers and farmers to their feet, shouting in affirmation.
“Senator,” says a local television reporter, in the post-rally quiet, “if you continue to take second and third place in these primaries, what are you going to do with your delegates at the convention?”
The former senator from North Carolina does not miss a beat. “I’m gonna be nominated president,” Edwards says. When the baby-faced reporter persists, the candidate’s eyes narrow as he drawls: “I’m gonna be president.”
Nearly four weeks after his best showing, his second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses (Sen. Barack Obama had 38% support, Edwards 30%, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton 29%), Edwards presses ahead.
He insists in speech after speech around the country that he’s in it for “the long haul,” predicting that, once exposed to his message, voters will join him in “a wave of change that sweeps America with a power and a force that literally cannot be stopped.”
Skeptics so far see only ripples -- and continue to raise questions about whether Edwards will stay the course, a query that arose again Tuesday when the candidate announced he was canceling events in Alabama and North Dakota today and instead would travel to New Orleans to deliver a “major policy address on poverty.”
The candidate and his aides insisted the change in plans merely signaled his determination to keep poverty at the heart of the agenda in the Democratic presidential race. The Edwards camp has in recent days also described a plan they hope will make him competitive in Tuesday’s 24 primaries and caucuses.
It focuses not on the big states -- like California, New York and Illinois -- but on rural districts and smaller markets, especially places that have suffered the kind of economic dislocation Edwards speaks passionately about in his stump speech.
In the Edwards campaign’s scenario, neither Clinton nor Obama will have enough delegates to win the nomination outright at this summer’s Democratic National Convention.
That will leave an opening for Edwards to appeal to Democratic delegates. Although some analysts speculate otherwise, the candidate insists he is not trying to play broker or force other candidates to hew to his views. He says he has not given up on the ultimate prize -- the presidency.
Veteran Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said Tuesday that it’s “hard to imagine” Edwards passing Obama and Clinton to win the nomination. But, Carrick said, conclusions are difficult to draw because there is no recent precedent for this year’s seesaw battle.
The ability to raise money on the Internet can help sustain campaigns that might have stalled in the past, and Edwards’ campaign reported bringing in more than $3.2 million since the start of the year, money that it plans to use to place ads in 10 states.
“I strongly believe no one gives up a presidential campaign; they just run out of money,” said Carrick, who helped run Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s 1988 presidential campaign.
Because delegates can be won in each congressional district without winning an entire state, Carrick said, Edwards has a chance to “have some real influence on the convention.”
A day after his disappointing third-place primary finish in his native South Carolina (a state he won in 2004), Edwards flew to the sort of small town where he plans to continue mining for votes. Dublin, Ga., has seen one plant after another close down -- including a furniture plant that had its machinery shipped to China.
Similar stories could be told by audiences at several of Edwards’ other stops over the last two days--in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Tulsa, Okla.
Edwards reaches for empathy with these audiences with a speech shorter than either of his rivals delivers. The content varies little from stop to stop. But Edwards delivers it in a fervent, emotional style. The onetime trial lawyer takes audiences on an arc from his upbringing in poor Southern “mill villages,” where his grandparents and father worked in textile plants, to today’s America, where, he says, parents face the same struggles as they try to provide for their children.
Edwards’ down-home cadence as much as his populist message seems to endear him to many audiences. In speaking of the poor, Edwards does not say, “Who’s looking out for them?”; it’s, “Who’s lookin’ out for thay-um?”
At each stop Edwards describes the dismay he felt when visiting a homeless shelter that must turn away 70 families each month for lack of space.
“Children. Living on the street in America,” he says, pausing to let the image sink in. “All while Exxon-Mobil makes $40 billion. Last year, 37 million people in this country, about the population of California, went hungry. In the richest nation on the planet.”
By the time he reaches the crescendo -- describing 200,000 military veterans living on the streets -- his audience is often calling out in affirmation. “It’s time for us to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” he concludes, his words muffled by applause. “The United States of America is better than this.”
Edwards delivers some specific prescriptions for change: Increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.50 an hour; revoke tax cuts for those making more than $200,000 to pay for universal healthcare; withdraw all U.S. military forces from Iraq within one year.
In other areas, he paints with a broad brush: “When they put a trade bill in front of me in the White House, I’m not going to ask what it does for big corporations. I’m going to ask what it does for average, working-class Americans.”
Although Edwards went on to make a fortune representing plaintiffs in civil suits, he inevitably concludes his speech by bringing the focus back to his upbringing and the bond he says he feels with working-class Americans.
“That is the great test of any generation,” he said Tuesday at a union hall in Tulsa. “Are we going to ensure that our children had a better life than we had?”
That line brought the crowd to its feet. One man thrust his cane into the air in agreement. And Mindy Tiner, who runs a social services agency for the poor, put her hand over her heart as she described her reaction.
“I don’t think you can truly understand the problem unless you have seen it up close like he has,” Tiner said. “It was very moving.”
Edwards, 54, has the votes of Tiner and others like her. His challenge is with voters like Opal Kight.
The 79-year-old retired nurse called out to Edwards when he dropped by the Blue Plate Restaurant in Dublin, Ga., this week. After the two shook hands, her two daughters gushed about how handsome the candidate looked.
“He is a good-looking man, and I like the way he talks. He’s so sweet. I might vote for him,” said Kight, who is also considering Clinton. “But when I say that, everyone says I will be wasting my vote. I just don’t know.”
Times staff writer Dan Morain contributed to this report.