NASHUA, N.H. — In the back of a crowded room at Daniel Webster College here, Joe Trippi, John Edwards’ campaign manager, watches closely as his candidate delivers a series of passionately populist orations, summed up by his declaration that “the few are controlling this democracy for the many.”

Next to Trippi, his colleague Glen Pearcy tends a camera recording every word that the tie-less, bluejeans-clad Edwards speaks for possible use in future television commercials. Standing before a large American flag, the former North Carolina senator insists that the country shouldn’t “trade a crowd of corporate Republicans for a crowd of corporate Democrats.”

As the news about the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination focuses on the increasingly bitter confrontation between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Edwards is fighting for survival. He knows his fate hinges on a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses that are now less than a month away. He will be out of the race if he runs third.

If Edwards fades, supporters of all three candidates agree that his backers are more likely to drift to Obama than to Clinton. Yet if Edwards gains ground, he could push either Clinton or Obama into third place — crippling one of them.

The Iowa polls suggest that this is Obama’s time. Over the weekend, The Des Moines Register released a survey showing the Illinois senator with 28 percent to Clinton’s 25 percent and Edwards’ 23 percent. Obama was up six points from the paper’s last poll, conducted in October. Clinton was down four, and Edwards held steady. A Pew/Associated Press poll released Monday still put Clinton on top, but interviewing for the survey began in early November.

The Clinton camp is clearly worried and the candidate herself is now taking Obama on personally. Addressing reporters in Iowa on Sunday, she spoke of “a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we’re willing to fight for.”

Standing in the way of a straight Obama-Clinton struggle is Edwards. He has been campaigning in Iowa since 2003, nearly won the caucuses over John Kerry four years ago, and stubbornly remains within easy striking distance of the front-runners. The Edwards campaign has a theory of how he can beat both of them.

As Trippi sees it, Clinton has relied on support from less affluent voters, particularly women, who are especially engaged on economic questions.

Trippi argued in an interview that some of these soft Clinton voters could eventually move to Edwards because his message of economic populism and his background as a mill worker’s son will trump Clinton’s arguments based on her experience. Trippi claims to see “lots of potential” among “blue-collar women who are currently leaning her way.”

Similarly, he says, some of Obama’s less-committed voters actually prefer Edwards’ fighting style to Obama’s pledges to bring Washington together across party lines. Clinton, with her emphasis this weekend on what she’s “willing to fight for,” clearly senses the same vulnerability.

David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager, agreed in a telephone interview on Monday that Democratic voters want a strong advocate for “Democratic ideals,” and see Obama in those terms. But he added: “Even the most hardened Democrats are tired of the partisanship and the game-playing.”

Edwards, who was once tougher than Obama in his criticism of Clinton, may now profit as the onlooker in a Clinton-Obama slugfest. During his Nashua appearance last week, Edwards smilingly noted that “Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton have been bickering about their health care plans.” Edwards said he shares Clinton’s view that universal health coverage would be impossible without a mandate on individuals to purchase insurance. Obama’s health plan contains no such mandate.

Yet Edwards’ mild tone — in contrast to his fiery attacks on a corporate-dominated Washington — suggested that he prefers to have Clinton take the lead in the controversy.

The Edwards theory is just that, a theory. The momentum is now with Obama even in a progressive blogosphere that has been favorably disposed toward Edwards. For example, Daily Kos’ regular canvas of its readers found a substantial bump upward for Obama between October and November.

The big choice Edwards faces will be whether to move his campaign more to the sunny style that became the trademark of his 2004 effort. Edwards insists that he’s as optimistic as he ever was.

Given the flow of the news, he has to be. Edwards needs a January surprise. But if he achieves it and pushes one of his leading foes into third place, he will revolutionize the Democratic campaign.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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