By CBSNews.com producer Jarrett Murphy
John Edwards headed north of the White Mountains on Saturday, braving sub-zero temperatures in search of crucial undecided voters.
He found them.
Polls, which are difficult to conduct accurately in primaries, suggest Edwards might be picking up some of the voters abandoning Howard Dean. A few people who once solidly supported the former Vermont governor, but now have doubts, were in the crowd.
"We were sort of leaning toward Dean and then Iowa happened and now we're looking to see if we want to stick with Dean or go somewhere else," said Patty Hall.
"He's enthusiastic," Hall said of Edwards. "He has a passion that I like to see. I think he has a depth to him. I just think he's kind of an exciting person."
Edwards, who stresses his southern roots, was a long way from North Carolina at the Gorham Town Hall: On the frost-scorched streets outside, it was about 2 below.
But the senator still drew well over 200 people.
Striding in to the John Mellancamp's "Small Town," as he usually does, Edwards launched right into his "Two Americas" stump speech, in which he decried the unequal treatment of rich and not-so-rich Americans in health care, in public schools and in the economy.
"The truth is you and I can do something about this. We can strengthen these working families," Edwards said. He weaved in mention of the 35 million Americans living in poverty, the rising tide of debt confronting many families, and a U.S. trade policy that he says stresses free trade only.
"How 'bout a little fair trade?" he asked, to loud applause. That populist tone is the backbone of the Edwards speech.
"This democracy – this government – doesn't belong to that crowd of insiders," he said. It's "ours, not theirs" he added. He also slammed "war profiteers," called for a ban on lobbyists making campaign contributions and targeted "predatory lenders, payday lenders and these credit companies that are fleeing America."
For the specifics of his proposals, Edwards mainly pointed the audience to the book his campaign has produced.
He did mention the harmful provisions of the No Child Left Behind education law, granting bonuses to teachers who work in tough schools and making Head Start available to younger children.
His most ambitious initiative might be making college available to everyone who qualifies and wants to go. Another far-reaching proposal is his plan to match the first $1,000 of family saving, dollar for dollar.
But Edwards quickly moves from the details aside back to his main points: he can win, and he cares.
As a trial lawyer facing corporate lawyers who doubted his skill, Edwards said, "I beat 'em. Then I beat 'em again and I beat 'em again and I'm proud of it."
Then he did the same to "the Helms machine" in North Carolina. And now, if he faces President Bush, he can beat him in "the North, in the West and – talking like this – in the South."
The line is so well-known the audience said "South" with him.
"I believe in you and I think you deserve a president who believes in you," he said. The crowd stood and cheered.
When they sat down, Edwards took only four questions and offered few specifics.
To one he answered: "Everything you've said just now is right."
To a question on what he'd do about the public health problems caused by the tobacco that is vital to his state's economy, Edwards said he'd take steps to prevent kids from starting to smoke and helping smokers to quit.
"It might have been a little vague, but it depends on how I asked the question," said Dale Newton. A Dean supporter, he drove from Vermont to see Edwards. His wife Janet backs Edwards. They drove two hours because by the time Vermont's primary comes, the race may well be over.
Specifics aside, Edwards' optimism had already won some area residents over.
"I love the energy, the precision and clarity of the answers, the fact that he does answer, that he doesn't waffle or answer some other question…and I love the message," said Bob Bridgham. He and his wife are Edwards supporters, and they brought a neighbor who is undecided. "I think this is the guy who should be the most effective taking Bush on."
"I like the fact that, as he says, he sees lots of possibilities," Ruben Rajala, a teacher, said. "I think the challenge is to figure out how to make some of these things more concrete and how to make them actually happen."
But, says Rajala, "if you take the negative view that nothing can change and nothing will be done, then nothing will."
With Kerry running away with New Hampshire in most polls, the real fight for Edwards is to finish strong enough to remain a serious candidate as the primaries head elsewhere.
Trying to capitalize on his strong showing in Iowa before the Feb. 3 South Carolina primary, Edwards is in fourth place, but moving up, in most polls.
A WBZ/Boston Globe poll has Edwards (12 percent) within a 5-point margin of error of Wesley Clark (15 percent) and Dean (15 percent). An American Research Group has Edwards in fourth, within 2 points of Dean.
In the latest Zogby/MSNBC/Reuters poll, Edwards jumped a point to 8 percent, behind Clark with 14 percent and just ahead of Joe Lieberman' 7 percent. That poll has a four-percentage point margin of error.
The fluidity of the race was on display in the town hall. Edwards was introduced by a state representative who had once backed Dick Gephardt. And several voters said they were still making up their minds.
Dave Carlson, there with his wife and son, said: "At this point most of them are so close, their positions are so similar, I'm just looking for something unique about each candidate."
Carlson, who is deciding between Edwards and Kerry, said he usually waits to the last minute to make up his mind. Hall and Rajala, who are deciding between Edwards and Dean, say they're running late this year.
"We haven't had this number before and I think we have a good number of viable candidates and so it's taking us longer this time to make up our minds," said Hall.
"It's a very difficult choice," said Rajala. "The bottom line is we've got to get a candidate this time who can win."
By Jarrett Murphy