John Edwards's Recovery Strategy

The way his senior adviser tells it, John Edwards intended to slip into third place in Iowa. According to Joe Trippi, the best way to leap to the top of the race is to slide back and then recover. The only problem is that Edwards is running out of time for the recovery.

Even the candidate seems to know it. "You've executed the first stage of the strategy very well," Edwards likes to tell Trippi. "When will you execute the second?"

Trippi's account of his running joke with the candidate might be the long-standing strategy of the Edwards campaign. Or it might be an explanation scripted after the slide had already begun. When asked where his boss stands in Iowa, Trippi blurts out, "Third place." But he also promises that, having just started to advertise in Iowa, the candidate will ultimately rise to the top. "It was a contest to see who could hold their breath the longest," says Trippi. "And we won."

There is a downside to holding your breath too long: the appearance of drowning. In five polls taken in Iowa this month, Hillary Clinton's lead ranges from two to six points. Edwards is either close to Barack Obama, tied for second, or lagging in third. He hasn't led an Iowa poll since August. These state soundings may be notoriously unreliable, but at his current levels Edwards is still more than 10 points behind where he ended up in Iowa in 2004. Clinton and Obama may have spent far more to secure their positions—a point the Edwards team is fond of making. But by taking federal matching funds, Edwards has a cap on how much late-stage cash he can spread around.

Edwards's strategy of a late surge may help explain why the Clinton campaign targeted its fire in Thursday night's debate at the former North Carolina senator. Of three instant rebuttals by the Clinton campaign in the first hour of the Las Vegas showdown, two were attacks on Edwards—the first on health care, the second on illegal immigration.

Indeed, the toughest Clinton line of the night was fired in Edwards's direction. "I don't mind taking hits on my record on issues, but when somebody starts throwing mud, at least we can hope that it's both accurate and not right out of the Republican playbook," she said. "You know, Senator Edwards raised health care again. When Senator Edwards ran in 2004, he wasn't for universal health care. I'm glad he is now."

Clinton's aides said that was just a taste of what they had prepared. "We had three or four more of those in our back pocket," said Jay Carson, Clinton's spokesman. "But we didn't need to use them because the questions hit on the same issue."

Clinton's team was most pleased about John Roberts's question about Edwards's reversals on Yucca Mountain and the war in Iraq. "If it is fair for you to change your position, is it not fair for her to change hers?" Roberts asked. Edwards responded by turning the flip-flop line back on Clinton—this time about voting for a free trade deal with Peru, while at the same time wanting a moratorium on such deals.

Officially, the Edwards team welcomed Clinton's fire—and would love nothing more than to have the Hawkeye State caucuses seen as a two-candidate race. "Whether she likes it or not, she's the Washington status quo candidate," says Trippi. "She has taken more money than any Republican candidate—more defense money, more health industry money. People know that those industries expect something for their money.

"There's a guy who has taken on those interests his whole life, and she keeps ignoring him and she doesn't engage him until now. Why now? Because all of a sudden it's a dead heat in Iowa," Trippi adds. "She's coming down a little bit."

If the Clinton folks are scared of Edwards, they didn't show it in the spin room on Thursday night. Nervous and sweaty in Philadelphia, Team Clinton looked calm and relaxed after the Vegas debate. "She didn't take a punch, and they never came back at her," said Mandy Grunwald.

Trippi is a smart and seasoned pol, and only a fool would count him out. But if his recovery strategy is going to work better for Edwards than it did for Howard Dean, he'd better get moving.