MILFORD, N.H. -- David Gibson is angry, and he's searching for a candidate who can channel his anger.
A retired air traffic controller and self-described political independent, Mr. Gibson, 67, calls President Bush a "liar," who has little concern for ordinary people. The Iraq war, he said, is an "illegal invasion." Until last week, he said, his probable pick in the New Hampshire presidential primary was long-shot Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio.
But a fiery stump speech from John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, changed Mr. Gibson's mind.
"I learned my lesson the hard way," Mr. Edwards said of his support for the 2002 congressional authorization for the use of force against Iraq. "You cannot give this president an inch. He has to be stopped."
Over 45 minutes on Tuesday, Mr. Edwards delivered a pugnacious portrayal of the state of the nation to a crowded room at a local Boys & Girls Club, telling listeners to prepare for a long battle against special interests that dominate Washington, D.C.
But his criticism went well beyond the current occupant of the White House. Trailing in the polls both nationally and in New Hampshire, Mr. Edwards is stepping up his efforts to present himself as the only true fighter among leading Democratic presidential candidates and the clear alternative to frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.
"Corruption has crept into our government, and it's infected virtually every part of it," he said. "It didn't begin just under Bush. It's been building up for decades."
Mr. Edwards didn't mention Mrs. Clinton by name. Yet the message was clear: Her husband, as president, presided over a period of democratic decline. She represents the status quo.
During a debate in Nevada on Thursday night, Mrs. Clinton replied forcefully to that charge: "When somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook."
Supporters say Mr. Edwards hasn't abandoned the hopeful tone of his 2004 presidential campaign, when he ran as a more moderate Democrat and spoke of economic inequality between "two Americas." He's just drawing a clearer distinction with Mrs. Clinton.
Still, Mr. Edwards is far from overcoming her commanding lead. An AP-Ipsos poll from the beginning of the month placed his support at 12 percent on the national level. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois had 22 percent and Mrs. Clinton had 45 percent. In New Hampshire, Mr. Edwards received backing from just 9 percent of the voters who said they would participate in the state's Democratic primary, according to a New York Times-CBS News poll released last week.
But the same poll placed his support at 23 percent in Iowa, putting him in a statistical dead heat with Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama. A strong performance in the state's 2004 caucuses helped Mr. Edwards clinch a spot on his party's national ticket alongside presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.
The Edwards campaign is aiming for a repeat performance in Iowa, which will hold the 2008 caucuses on Jan. 3. Mr. Edwards has spent nearly 60 days in the state since last December, more than Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton (although they're close behind). He's the only candidate who has visited all of Iowa's 99 counties, according to his campaign.
Learning from 2004
That doesn't mean he's ignoring other early battlegrounds, such as New Hampshire, which still hasn't set a primary date -- the likely date is early January. Mr. Edwards has 60 to 70 field staff in the state, about half the size of his Iowa operation but significantly larger than his New Hampshire presence in 2004, when he finished fourth.
"Certainly, we've learned from the last campaign," said Kate Bedingfield, an Edwards spokesperson. "We have the resources to compete with anyone in New Hampshire."
Of the three top-tier Democratic candidates, Mr. Edwards has trailed in fundraising and is the only one to accept public financing for the primary season, limiting how much he can spend. He started his first major television campaign in the state this month.
"I think it's an uphill battle," said Michael Dupre, a research fellow at St. Anselm College's New Hampshire Institute of Politics. "You have a very strong frontrunner with Hillary Clinton."
But state Sen. David Gottesman said Mr. Edwards is taking the right approach: frequent town hall meetings and small gatherings that give candidates regular, face-to-face contact with voters.
"The way people get elected in New Hampshire is by getting to know the citizens," said Mr. Gottesman, the deputy Democratic whip in the state Senate and, like Mr. Edwards, a lawyer.
They met at an American Association of Justice event seven years ago, and Mr. Gottesman helped introduce the candidate to New Hampshire, bringing him down Nashua's Main Street to shake hands during the early stages of the 2004 campaign.
"He has been working at the grass roots since the day he decided to run," Mr. Gottesman said. "He should keep doing that right up until the very end."
In Milford last week, Mr. Edwards spoke to a group of about 150 people, his soft southern accent sometimes clashing with his strong rhetoric.
"The few -- the wealthy, the powerful, the richest Americans, big multinational corporations -- are running the government," he said. "The American people are just as good, strong, and courageous as they've ever been. I know that because I'm out among them every single day. But the government has gone in the wrong direction."
Health care plan
He then laid out specific proposals for how to change direction, contrasting himself with Mrs. Clinton.
In Iraq, he said, he plans to withdraw at least 40,000 troops as soon as he takes office. All combat troops would be gone from the country within nine months, he said. Mrs. Clinton hasn't made a similar commitment, he said, although she has pledged to withdraw troops.
To bail out Social Security, Mr. Edwards said he would increase the amount of income subject to payroll taxes beyond the current cap of $97,500. He said he would provide a buffer zone for middle class taxpayers. Mrs. Clinton has said she would appoint a commission to study the issue.
Mr. Edwards is perhaps most passionate about health care, and he sees it as the strongest example of the failings of government, especially when Bill Clinton was president and Mrs. Clinton took the lead on the issue.
"We had a Democratic president, a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate in 1993. We tried to pass universal health care," he said. "The drug companies, the insurance companies and the lobbyists killed it."
He was the first Democratic candidate to unveil a detailed health care proposal this election cycle, calling for mandatory insurance through a mixture of private and public plans. Employers could provide coverage directly, taking advantage of large purchasing pools of businesses that would reduce the costs. Mr. Edwards estimates that his approach would cost between $90 billion and $120 billion.
He doesn't dwell on the details of his proposal unless asked. But he does routinely issue a strong warning to Congress. If no health insurance plan is approved by the midway point of his first year in office, he'll fight to take government-funded insurance away from lawmakers.
It's a message that resonates with T.D. Floras, 45, of Merrimack. She last year left her job as a manager at a clothing store and lost her health insurance. Over the summer, food poisoning sent her to the emergency room at a local hospital. She still hasn't paid a $1,200 bill from that visit.
She went to hear Mr. Edwards with her sister, Kathy Nadeau, whose husband has worked as a civil engineer for the state government for 30 years. Now 58, he wants to retire, but he needs to keep working to provide insurance coverage for their two teenage children.
Still, neither woman is willing to commit to Mr. Edwards. Ms. Floras said she supported him in 2004, but she is backing Mrs. Clinton this time, citing her experience.
"I like John Edwards," she said. "But he didn't win the first time. So what's different?"
Outside observers say his sharp line of attack is the main difference. Mr. Dupre, who has followed New Hampshire politics for 40 years, calls Mr. Edwards the "Howard Dean" candidate, referring to the former Vermont governor who voiced angry opposition to the Iraq war on the campaign trail in 2004.
New Hampshire state Sen. Joseph Foster, a Democrat and Edwards supporter, said the candidate hasn't adopted an aggressive tone; he's become more focused.
"I know where he stands," said Mr. Foster, the state Senate's majority leader. "He doesn't say we need a commission to study social security."
The candidate himself says he's following the same path he followed as a successful trial lawyer. Instead of combating large corporations on behalf of his clients, he's now targeting Washington's entrenched power groups on behalf of the American people.
"I think what we need is a president who will give America hope," he said to loud applause in Milford, "and give these powerful interests hell."
Jerome L. Sherman can be reached at email@example.com or 202-488-3479.