Though he's got less money than rivalsand , if he can pull off a victory on Thursday, cash and other help could come flooding in almost instantly in this high-tech political world.
That's if he wins. His second-place finish here in 2004 sent him on his way to the second spot on the Democratic ticket. Second place on his second try wouldn't be the same. Third place would push him back into the ranks of the 2008 also rans.
Edwards strategist Joe Trippi noted that John Kerry began raking in $2 million a day after winning Iowa four years ago, and he says Edwards could walk the same path. Rival campaigns have begun to openly worry about Edwards, after months where he was stuck in third place.
"It's just reality that if you win the Iowa caucuses, the money pours in," Edwards said in an Associated Press interview Sunday. "It's almost like you cannot process it because it comes in so fast. There will be plenty of money to run the campaign."
Edwards has climbed into a virtual tie in recent surveys and has drawn large, enthusiastic crowds on a well-trod route through the state since 2004.
Part of his gain comes with his history in the state. He began campaigning in Iowa in 2002, and didn't really stop after the 2004 election cycle, so Iowa activists know him well. They have a history of rewarding familiar faces, as 1996 GOP nominee Bob Dole can attest. Edwards will launch a 36-hour, round-the-clock marathon on Tuesday.
He's spending the closing days in smaller venues like the Beef and Brew in Mapleton, and says he feels the same movement he felt four years ago when he vaulted to a surprising second-place showing. "I can feel it and it's stronger than four years ago," said Edwards.
Appearing on CBS News' The Early Show on Monday, Edwards told Harry Smith that he's gaining steam headed into the final days of the Iowa campaign and the approach to New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary.
"The thing that's clear here is we have huge enegey and momentum," Edwards said. "What I have to do is make sure that Iowa caucus-goers, New Hampshire voters, know what I want to do as president. And what it is I want to do is strengthen the middle class, stand up for American jobs, and fight for the future of their children. They know that, and if they know that, we're going to do well here."
The former North Carolina senator, restrained from using his personal fortune by his decision to accept public campaign financing, has raised far less money and runs a smaller organization in Iowa than his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination.
No matter, he says. The presidential nomination contests are so compressed this time - "bam, bam, bam" - that strong early showings should be rewarded nationally, and a nominee produced in short order.
"The message will get heard," he said. "If you win the Iowa caucuses, you are going to be heard very loudly and clearly in these other places."
Mark Longabaugh, who did campaign work for Richard Gephardt in New Hampshire in 1988 and Bill Bradley in 2000, said the squeezed calendar means "the dynamic is dramatically different than in the past," with less time for candidates to recover from an early setback. He noted the usual gap of at least eight days between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary is down to five days this time.
In 2000, Bradley was soundly beaten in Iowa but was able to boost his poll standings in New Hampshire by up to 10 points, making that race close, said Longabaugh.
"I can't imagine many people will be able to pull that off this year," he said.
Edwards claims he's put a "terrific" organization on the ground in New Hampshire. "We have people up there every week making thousands and thousands of phone calls."
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, agreed.
"He's invested more resources in New Hampshire, he has more people on the ground," said Scala. "If he wins Iowa, he could gain some momentum here. He's put some roots here."
Edwards had raised $30 million by the end of September, well behind Obama and Clinton, when he decided to seek public financing. He has been certified to get nearly $9 million in public funds.
His campaign also argues that with the Internet, money can flow faster than ever, as can organization, an opportunity other candidates are intent on exploiting as well. Trippi built a high-tech financial operation for Howard Dean in 2004.
Even so, Edwards argues that the aura of a winner will be worth more than cash after Iowa.
"I don't think it's money-driven at that point," he said. "If you've been successful in Iowa, you've been successful. Free media ... will overwhelm anything anybody spends."
And he dismissed the significance of the money edge developed by Clinton and Obama.
"We're having an election, not an auction," he said. "This is going to be decided by who is the best candidate with the clearest, strongest message."
Edwards has been getting more than $2 million in help from labor-backed independent groups that have drawn criticism from watchdog organizations and from Obama in particular. The groups, called "527" organizations for the section of the IRS code that authorizes them, have been running ads supporting Edwards' policies in Iowa during the closing days of the campaign.
Appearing on The Early Show Monday, Edwards said he has no control over those organizations - one of which is run by Nick Baldick, a Democratic strategist who managed Edwards's 2004 campaign.
"It's my understanding that the guy who runs the organization worked for me years ago. Yes, that is true," Edwards said when asked about the connection.
Edwards' campaign retained Baldick's firm earlier this year to provide political strategy consulting. Edwards spokesman Eric Shultz said Edwards was referring to Baldick's role as campaign manager in 2004.
Edwards said he might get an extra boost if he can win Iowa because it would show he clawed his way back into a race viewed for months as a two-person contest.
"I think if I win here it will be a shock to America," he said. "They have been telling everyone repeatedly that it's going to be Clinton or Obama. That adds to the energy and excitement."