Can Edwards find salvation in Iowa?

Barb Jones is a foot soldier in John Edwards’ Iowa political army, one of the people he is counting on to keep his White House bid alive.

A 45-year-old mother of five, Jones is making telephone calls and knocking on doors for Edwards. She recently helped set up a rally in the northwest corner of Iowa, a remote landscape filled with cornfields that borders Minnesota and South Dakota, where Edwards was the first Democratic presidential candidate to venture this year.

It is people like Jones and off-the-beaten-track places like Rock Rapids that Edwards hopes will be his political salvation.

Edwards is counting on a broad network of Iowa volunteers such as Jones, carefully built over two presidential campaigns and dozens of visits, to sustain him against his better-financed Democratic opponents, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Clinton and Obama are dominating the Iowa television airwaves. But come the night of the Jan. 3 caucuses, Edwards hopes his organization will muster a majority at the schools, churches and libraries where Iowans will gather to cast the first ballots of the 2008 presidential campaign.

“We are very organized,” Edwards said after a recent stop in Iowa. “We know how to do this. We know how the Iowa caucus works. We know the hard, nose-to-the-grindstone work that has to be done. I don’t think Iowa caucus voters are a television-driven vote. They are looking very hard at each one of us.”

For Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and vice-presidential candidate, the Iowa caucuses may be a make-or-break moment. In recent months, Edwards’ early lead in the Iowa polls has evaporated as his rivals have begun major television advertising campaigns. The University of Iowa Hawkeye Poll released Monday showed Clinton with 29 percent, Obama with 27 percent and Edwards with 20 percent — down from 26 percent in August and 34 percent in March.

Since late June, Obama has spent $3.5 million on TV in Iowa, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson has spent $1.8 million and Clinton has spent $1.6 million. Edwards has spent nothing. Edwards, who has a far smaller war chest than Clinton and Obama, has been holding back on his TV campaign until closer to the caucuses.

Edwards is betting that organization will trump money.

The campaign claims it has the broadest network of volunteers in the state. It notes that Edwards either won or came in second in 52 of Iowa’s 99 counties in 2004, when he finished second to Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Edwards has been trying to build on that support since then.

“Edwards is certainly competitive,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Des Moines. “He left the ’04 caucuses with a lot of good will among Democrats. He has visited a lot of counties. He has done the kind of trench warfare that the caucuses require.”

All the major Democratic candidates have massive campaign infrastructure in the state. Edwards has 15 campaign offices in Iowa, compared to 33 offices for Obama and 24 for Clinton. Edwards has 130 paid staffers in Iowa, compared to 117 for Clinton and 145 for Obama, according to a tally by The Des Moines Register.

The Edwards campaign is also counting on the organizational muscle of labor unions to get his supporters to the caucuses. Earlier this month, Edwards was endorsed by the Iowa chapter of the Service Employees International Union, which has 2,200 members in Iowa. Edwards has been endorsed by unions that represent 15,000 workers and their families in Iowa, according to his campaign.

Goldford said that during a good turnout, as many as 100,000 will vote in each of the Republican and Democratic caucuses.

In small town after small town, Edwards not only gives a speech, but fields all questions from the audience. Then he hangs around to pose for photographs, sign autographs and chat. At the end, he asks everyone to fill out a card with contact information.

Edwards recently told a crowd of more than 100 people at a cattle-auction house in Dunlap, about an hour east of Omaha, Neb., that it wasn’t hard to be there that day.

“The question is, who is going to show up on a cold January night to caucus?” he said. “We need you to be there on caucus night. We need for you to be there when it really matters, when you are going to choose who is the next president of the United States.”

(Reach Rob Christensen at rob.Christensen(at)newsobserver.com.)

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