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Elizabeth Edwards In New Hampshire

It's already wintry cold here in New Hampshire: They're forcasting snow flurries for the morning. This evening I dropped in on a house party for Elizabeth Edwards (above) in the town of Hampton, just a few miles across the Massachusetts border.

Edwards looked vigorous throughout the two-hour event--the last of several today--and made only a couple of glancing references to her health. She put on an impressive performance overall. Speaking in a quick staccato that suggests a rapid-fire mind abuzz with more thoughts than she has time to share, Elizabeth made a strong case for being the 2008 campaign's most politically shrewd spouse next to Bill Clinton himself.

One thing you notice right away is Edwards's media savvy. Elizabeth doesn't just talk about "the media," but refers to "the mainstream media"--a dead giveaway of a blog junkie. She also hinted at her liberal-bestseller bookshelf, citing Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? and the lefty evangelical Jim Wallis's God's Politics--as well as former TNR foreign editor Josh Kurlantzick's book on China, Charm Offensive. She recommended this morning's New York Times "Public Editor" column (finding that John Edwards has gotten substantially less Times coverage than Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama). She explained to the perhaps 50 people in attendance--an older, and heavily, female crowd--that John's 1998 Senate opponent, Lauch Faircloth, had employed the bare-knuckled Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos. (How often do you hear politicians name-check political consultants?) And she even knew enough to reference that night's New England Patriots game.  ("I promise you the Patriots are not going to give the Bills a 40-point lead before they step on the field, which is what the Democrats do all the time," by which she meant the way Democrats largely write off the South.) 

Substantively, Edwards argued that her husband is the most progressive (credible: sorry Kucinich) candidate in the race--but also the most electable one. Again talking more like a liberal blogger than a traditional political spouse, she noted poll data showing that voters believe Edwards to be more conservative than he actually is. "Part of it is probably the way John talks," she explained--a presumed general election advantage. She argued, a la Wallis, that her husband's emphasis on poverty could win over compassionate religious voters. And she promised that he would put the South back into play for Democrats. ("John won in a red state against an incumbent who was a protege of Jesse Helms," she said of the 1998 contest against Faircloth.)

The event's last question brought a dissonant moment. A middle-aged campaign volunteer lamented that he often hears bad things about John Edwards from other voters, including that he is "the spoiled candidate out there," a man who "looks too good," is "an ambulance chaser" and "a hypocrite" with "a large house." ("Not quite as large as you might think," Elizabeth objected, adding: "But it's not small.") This litany was stinging enough to make me wonder if the man might be a plant from another campaign. But when I caught up with the man--a Portsmouth resident named Jim Flynn--over a cup of hot cider in the kitchen later, he was clearly genuine. "To me he's the new Bobby Kennedy," Flynn said of John Edwards. "He has that passion." Elizabeth had responded to his question with a long description of cases John had tried, and assured him that families he represented--people who had suffered severe personal losses--would be quick to defend him against Republican attacks. Afterwards. Flynn seemed satisfied by her response. "You gotta think about who his clients were," he told me--"people who don't have a voice."

As for Elizabeth herself, the crowd seemed agog. "She is a charming, wonderful advocate for her husband," gushed Jan Cowan of Exeter, echoing what other attendees told me. That's good news for the campaign, which needs all the help it can get in New Hampshire: John Edwards is still polling well behind Clinton and Obama here. But if he can somehow pull off a win in Iowa, a night like this one will have been a shrewd investment.

P.S. I had the New Hampshire television station WMUR on in the background as I wrote this item. Over the course of about thirty minutes I saw TV ads for Edwards, Obama, Clinton (twice), Mitt Romney, John McCain (twice), Rudy Giuliani (twice), and Ron Paul. High primary season is truly upon us. (Also: WMUR is hyping a new state primary poll due out at 5 p.m. tomorrow. Stay tuned.) 

--Michael Crowley