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The Edwards Factor

John Edwards's campaign laid out its Feb. 5 strategy in a conference call Monday, a sign that the former North Carolina Senator has no plans to leave the race before 24 states have their say on the first Tuesday in February.

"This thing is going for a long time," said Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager for Edwards. To that end, the campaign is going on television in ten Feb. 5 states -- focusing on southerners, union members, and people who live in rural areas.

The Edwards campaign insisted that it has experienced a financial windfall since Jan. 1 -- particularly in online fundrasing, which has garnered the candidate between $3 and $4 million, according to campaign manager Joe Trippi. Still, it's hard to see how Edwards, who has accepted public financing in the primaries and routinely lagged far behind Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) in cash collecting, will be able to compete with his rivals on such a broad national stage.

Edwards' senior advisers did little to clear up that uncertainty, refusing to answer questions about whether the ad buy would be in large (and expensive) states like California and New York.

"We are not telling the dollar size of our buy or what markets it is going on," said Prince, predicting that the total Edwards' ad buy will be "three quarters of the size of our opponents."

Time will tell.

What's clear from the campaign conference call, which began as Sen. Ted Kennedy's (Mass.) endorsement of Obama was being carried live across all three cable networks, is that Edwards has little hope of winning the nomination but still has a potentially important role to play when it comes to determining the eventual nominee of the party.

The states in which Edwards is expected to campaign hard, as outlined during the call by former congressman David Bonior (Mich.), an Edwards adviser, are the same that Obama expects to target heavily -- Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri, Minnesota and North Dakota to name a few. Edwards is also making noise in several strong Clinton states -- California being the most prominent -- but it's clear that Edwards is far more likely to overlap with Obama than Clinton over the next eight days of campaigning.

That overlap stands in direct contrast to Edwards' perceived role in last Saturday's South Carolina primary, where conventional wisdom said Obama would consolidate the black vote while Edwards would split the white vote with Clinton -- making it impossible for her to win. Edwards DID split the white vote with Clinton, but Obama beat Clinton by such a large margin that Edwards' did not end up being a true spoiler; Obama would have won whether Edwards was on the ballot or not.

Now it appears that Edwards' focus on the southern and rural states that should be Obama strongholds is designed to weaken Obama more than Clinton.

But we don't know if Edwards will improve enough on his showings in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to accrue enough delegates to truly complicate Obama's winning calculus. His message of fighting for the forgotten middle class had clear resonance in Iowa, but since that vote Edwards has struggled to repeat the showing. His southern accent and working-class roots should help him in places like Georgia and Alabama, but given the large number of black voters in those states -- and Obama's dominance of the African-American vote in Nevada and South Carolina -- they seem like longshots for Edwards.

Where he could matter are in states like Tennessee and Missouri -- states being heavily targeted by Clinton and Obama that both sides acknowledge are going to be very close. If Edwards can put voice to the concerns of rural and lower middle class voters -- as he did in Iowa -- he could well influence the outcome of these hotly contested states, where he could again split the white vote with Clinton.

The big question surrounding Edwards is whether there is any resonance left in his message. He still clearly has the heart to stay in the race but his capacity compete financially and organizationally is a VERY open question at the moment. The next eight days should be telling when it comes to Edwards' role in the nominating fight. Is he an afterthought or an influencer?

By Chris Cillizza  |  January 29, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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