CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — If you had seen John Edwards perform Saturday at the public library in the pretty little town of Washington about 45 minutes south of here, you’d understand how he made all that money as a trial lawyer. The man knows how to deliver a closing argument.

He projected confidence. He made eye contact. He skillfully used rhetorical strategies — repetition, illustration, simplification, more repetition — to imprint the minds of the jury, I mean the audience, with his narrative of ordinary Americans in an “epic fight” against “special interests” and “corporate greed.” He lingered to shake hands in the overflow crowd that filled the hallway and stretched down the stairs. He flashed his halogen-bright smile.

The buzz in Iowa is that Edwards, for months eclipsed by front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, is mounting a significant eleventh-hour surge. His poll numbers are up, his crowds are full of energy and fervor, and at this point few would be surprised if he were the winner of Thursday night’s nominating caucuses.

No one would be surprised if he finished third, either. Obama’s crowds are bigger, Clinton’s can be louder, and decisive numbers of voters remain undecided.

The three campaigns motor this way and that across the vast, snow-covered whiteness of rural Iowa, past silos and barns, barns and silos, unsure of whether they’re actually getting anywhere. I think a quotation from the philosopher Dan Rather best sums up the state of knowledge in all three camps: “We don’t know what to do. We don’t know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon.”

Obama was getting hoarse Saturday evening as he spoke to a rally at the high school in Mount Pleasant; it was his fourth speech of the day, and he still had to deliver a fifth. The volunteers staffing the event were mostly college age, and the sense of the Obama campaign as more of a movement was palpable.

His theme, as always, was of himself as a vessel of hope and an agent of change. “We don’t need somebody who knows how to play the game better,” he said, “we need to put an end to the game-playing.” Those who say he should get more experience in Washington before running for president, he said, just want to “boil the hope out of him.”

I thought he sounded a little flat compared with other times I’ve heard him speak, but the audience seemed enthralled with both the man and his message. I spoke with one previously undecided voter — John Davis, a 21-year-old concrete worker — who said Obama had sealed the deal as far as he was concerned.

On Sunday afternoon, Hillary Clinton’s road show descended on the town of Vinton. The volunteer staffers at her event were mostly women, many of whom had come from as far as California.

Clinton’s theme for the day was “honoring families,” and much of her 40-minute speech — longer than usual — was devoted to highlighting her initiatives on issues such as long-term care. But she didn’t neglect her major theme — experience — and she got applause with her standard line about her two main rivals: “Some people think you make change by demanding it and some people think you make change by hoping for it. I think you make change by working really, really hard.”

I ran into Gary Levitz, a retired management consultant from Iowa City, at both the Edwards and Clinton events — Iowans like to comparison-shop before they buy. “The Democrats have outstanding candidates, and it’s difficult to tell them apart on the issues,” he said. “You wish there was some way you could have them all.”

But there isn’t a way to have them all, and at the moment it is Edwards who is framing the discussion with his pledge to be confrontational and uncompromising in defense of the poor and the middle class.

He tells audiences that “these people” — the reference is often nonspecific but generally refers to corporate America — are killing the American dream. “These people have an iron grip on your democracy,” he told his audience Saturday. “I don’t believe these people are going to give up anything without a fight.”

His policy proposals aren’t that different from those of his opponents. What really sets the three candidates apart is tone. Edwards, in the tradition of effective populist campaigners, has found words to express the feeling of being used and abused by powerful forces that need to be cut down to size.

For months, it seemed as if Iowans had to choose between inspiration and pragmatism. It turns out that many wanted to hear some righteous anger as well.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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