Most of the audience seemed to like what they heard.
“I’m looking for somebody electable,” said Joyce Chamberlain, 58, of Pleasantville, who also sat in on the private meeting. “He’s in my top three with [Bill] Richardson and [Chris] Dodd. He promoted himself instead of running somebody else down. And that’s important to me. I don’t see Hillary and Obama as being electable, and I want a Democrat to win.”
Still, as people bundled up in preparation for the bone-chilling weather outside, there were indications that Mr. Edwards’ prospects had dimmed considerably since the end of 2006, when The Des Moines Register reported a poll that showed him with 36 percent support among Iowa Democrats, compared to 16 percent for Mrs. Clinton and 13 percent for Mr. Obama.
“I’m worried,” said Fran Schiffer, an 81-year-old from Indianola who volunteers for Mr. Edwards. “I think he should be up a little higher in the standings.”
The lengthening odds against Mr. Edwards in the minds of national opinion-makers is reflected in the trickle of press coverage he now generates. (When Mr. Edwards’ campaign bus pulled out of the museum’s sludgy parking lot on Thursday night, it was followed by two large press vans. The second held one reporter.)
These days, there is usually only one regular print reporter on the van, often from The New York Times.
“I’m pretty surprised that these vans aren’t full of fuller,” said James Romoser, a 24-year-old reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal. It was his first day ever covering a presidential candidate. “I was surprised The [Washington] Post doesn’t have a reporter here.”
If the national press has gone cold on Mr. Edwards, though, he can at least take solace in the fact that his front-running Democratic opponents still take him very seriously.
Mrs. Clinton has made Mr. Edwards the unnamed straw man in speeches about her experience. (“Some people believe you make change by demanding it,” she says, derisively.)
And Mr. Obama has done the same.
Talking about the problem with “special interests,” Mr. Obama, speaking in Spencer, Iowa, said that Mr. Edwards has “been talking a lot” about his fight against lobbyists and the special interests. “Well, the question you have to ask is were you fighting for ’em when you were in the Senate?” he said. “What did you do?”
The Edwards campaign says his rivals are worried because, despite Mr. Edwards’ emaciated media coverage, the race in Iowa is really a dead heat. They say that their in-house polling has Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Edwards and Mr. Obama all within five points of each other.
Mr. Edwards’ message of “rising up” and his assertions of “I mean this heartfelt” resonated with the voters he spoke to on Dec. 14, at the Cedar Lodge Steakhouse in Manchester, where wooden reindeer hanging on the walls wore Christmas hats and lipstick.
When a voter torn between supporting Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards asked why the former North Carolina senator was the better choice, Mr. Edwards answered that his big advantage over his opponents was his electability.
“If you want to win, you’re looking at the guy who can go everywhere in America with a real message of fighting for change and the things we have been talking about here today, and compete every single place in this country,” said Mr. Edwards, as some members of the audience nodded. “You should caucus with me.”
He received a big round of applause.
As he shook hands with voters, Ms. Edwards stood on the sidelines and rejected the notion that her husband had in any way softened or sweetened his tone to take advantage of the acrimonious exchanges between Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama.
“Go back and look at his old speeches,” she said, adding that the media always had a flawed conception of him as the race’s angry candidate. “John is passionate, and anyone who understands it as anything else is wrong, whether that’s—anybody.”
The couple got back onto the bus for interviews while their children roughhoused in the snow. The Main Street Express made its last stop of the day, at an opera house in Elkader, where Mr. and Ms. Edwards stood in front of a heavy crimson curtain draped with an American flag.
Again, Ms. Edwards introduced her husband.
“John has made a deliberate choice about how to spend his days,” she said. “Do you trust this guy? Who is authentic? Who is really talking from his heart?”
Mr. Edwards again took the microphone and delivered yet another one of his new, more positive speeches. And again, it worked.
“He’s not bringing out the negatives as he did initially,” said Jim Dahl, a 60-year-old retired juvenile probation officer and Edwards supporter from West Union. “And I like that.”