History keeps hope alive for former Sen. John Edwards.

He is on the campaign bus again this week, rolling down some of the same Iowa highways he has been traversing for years now.

But when a reporter brought up the aura of “inevitability” surrounding the national front-runners, Edwards leaned forward and offered a flashback to 2003.

It was around this time that summer, when he was driving down these Iowa highways still trying to get recognized, that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean looked like the Democrat’s likely nominee.

“I lived through an ‘inevitable’ campaign in 2003,” he told a small group of reporters, with his wife, Elizabeth, grinning at his side.

Edwards’ point is that it’s early. That anyone who thinks the nominations can be wrapped up five months before the first caucus votes are cast in Iowa just doesn’t know their history.

That’s his hope — that with an Iowa caucus win, he’ll gain the momentum to overtake Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama and then keep winning.

Still, as the bus rumbled between the cornfields, Edwards conceded that this election season is moving at break-neck speed. At this point before the January 2004 caucuses, “I didn’t feel this level of intensity,” he said.

This time, he starts with a bigger name, but he’s up against two others who have been hogging much of the national spotlight. So in a series of stops Monday — from Des Moines to Perry, Jefferson, Carroll and beyond, he took a stab at the auras surrounding both of his leading rivals.

Edwards implied that Clinton is too much of an establishment figure in an era that demands change. What’s more, he said, she has declined to be specific on things like universal health care, apparently trying to blur any distinctions between Democrats.

“Sen. Clinton takes the stage in debate after debate and says, ‘We’re all for the same thing.'” Edwards said. “If that’s true, where is her proposal?”

He gives Obama credit for offering a detailed health care plan — even if he disagrees with it. But then he questions Obama’s claim for the change-agent mantle.

“I don’t think you can change things by just compromising.”

Iowa has long been considered an Edwards stronghold, but one recent poll suggests it’s now a three-way dead-heat. And this week Clinton’s campaign announced its first TV ad blitz in Iowa, portraying her as the candidate who stands up for working people.

That hits right at the core of Edwards’ populist appeal, built on his frequent speeches about the plight of workers and the poor.

As Edwards heard in an audience member’s question in Jefferson on Monday, some voters can’t decide between him and Obama as a Clinton alternative.

“I think both of them represent a distinct change in America, and I think America is ready. We want something dramatic done,” said farmer Gene Blanshan of Panora, who asked Edwards to draw contrasts. “(Clinton) certainly is not ‘Bush lite.’ She’s just not the advocate of change I’d like to see.”

Edwards makes it sound as if this part — the primary contest — will be the toughest part of winning the White House.

Get him to the general election, and “the case is not hard.” He said he’ll get into the debate, stand next to a Republican and tell voters: “Want four more years of the war in Iraq? Vote for him. Want four more years of what you’re paying for health insurance today . . . ? Do you like what you’re paying for gasoline? Do you like what happened to America in the world? Vote for him.”

But can Edwards continue marching toward that debate stage? So much of his hopes hinge on Iowa that this is where the question will be answered. So that’s why, yet again, he’s riding the roads between the cornfields.

(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)

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