The only person unhappier about John Edwards' Wisconsin surge than Sen. John Kerry surely is George W. Bush. Call it tribal instinct, but Bush is probably more worried about Edwards in a head-to-head contest than he is about Kerry.
Yes, Kerry has the war hero thing, which Bush can't touch. And Kerry has his party's support so far, but largely because of his alleged "electability." They don't love him; they tolerate him because they see him as their best bet against Bush.
But Kerry also has a two-decades-long liberal voting record that could hurt him where Edwards has left few tracks. And Kerry, despite his war record, also has an anti-war record that infuriates many veterans who haven't forgotten or forgiven.
By contrast, Edwards brings something fresh to the table: two-thumbs-up optimism and emotional access to many of the same voters Bush has always counted as his own, including plenty of disenchanted Independents and Republicans.
AND, no small thing, Edwards can talk.
He can talk lawyer; he can talk populism; and he can talk back yard. Just like Bush as to the latter. Edwards' standard line - "the South isn't Bush's back yard, it's my back yard" - is a regional pitch, but it also captures a larger demographic that includes working-class people, a few million of whom need a job.
Edwards knows those folks in ways Bush and Kerry never have and never will. When he says he's one of them, he really is. Born to a mill-worker family in South Carolina, he's been "true pore," even if he is now truly rich. Kerry and Bush, on the other hand, are two privileged peas in a plush pod: Yale, Skull and Crossbones, American dynasty and money.
Stories about Kerry's Brahmanism, his wife's big bucks, his Beacon Hill mansion and his DYKWIA (Don't you know who I am) attitude have been circulating on the airwaves and Internet for months. Given that history - and a stage personality that makes Mt. Rushmore seem cuddly - a working-class pitch would sound phony.
So goes the impression. Factually, Kerry is more a friend to working men and women than many may realize. As ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, on which Edwards also serves, he has been a defender of small business as the Bush administration repeatedly has tried to cut the Small Business Administration budget.
Bush's charm always has been his ability to transcend his corporate identity and lucky breeding and relate to the common man. He drives a pickup, clears brush and is happiest on his ranch. When Bush visits firemen at Ground Zero, or soldiers in Baghdad, or NASCAR dads at Daytona, you get the feeling he's at home.
Of course Bush could greet shoppers at Wal-Mart and seem at home. But so could Edwards, the boy next door who remembers what it feels like to be called a "linthead." The difference is that Edwards is still fluent when he leaves the parking lot.
In a stand-up debate, Edwards would give Bush a serious headache. As an accomplished trial lawyer, he thinks on his feet, connects with an audience, knows his material and is always on message: jobs, jobs, jobs.
When Kerry responds during debates, you half expect to hear Ella Fitzgerald tuning up: "First you say you do, and then you don't. And then you say you will, and then you won't."
Kerry may have the statesman's DNA and the veteran's resume, but Edwards has the common touch at a time when change is rustling the kudzu. Compared to both Kerry and Bush, Edwards is like a bright shiny penny: no tarnish, no lengthy voting record to defend, no smoke.
Of course Edwards' strong showing in Wisconsin was owing to the open primary. Only four of the 10 primaries on "Super Tuesday" are open to Independents and Republicans to vote, but those are the voters Democrats will need to oust Bush come November.
A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll showed Kerry and Edwards statistically even when it comes to beating Bush. Kerry would beat the president 55 percent to 43 percent, while Edwards would beat Bush 54 percent to 44 percent. All of which suggests Kerry could be in trouble, and that Bush could be facing an unexpected trial against an adversary accustomed to winning the closing argument.