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Spoiler Warning

Next to Trippi, his colleague Glen Pearcy tends a camera recording every word that the tie-less, bluejeans-clad Edwards speaks for possible use in future television commercials. Standing before a large American flag, the former North Carolina senator insists that the country shouldn't "trade a crowd of corporate Republicans for a crowd of corporate Democrats."

If Edwards fades, supporters of all three candidates agree that his backers are more likely to drift to Obama than to Clinton. Yet if Edwards gains ground, he could push either Clinton or Obama into third place -- crippling one of them.

The Clinton camp is clearly worried and the candidate herself is now taking Obama on personally. Addressing reporters in Iowa on Sunday, she spoke of "a big difference between our courage and our convictions, what we believe and what we're willing to fight for."

As Trippi sees it, Clinton has relied on support from less affluent voters, particularly women, who are especially engaged on economic questions.

Similarly, he says, some of Obama's less-committed voters actually prefer Edwards' fighting style to Obama's pledges to bring Washington together across party lines. Clinton, with her emphasis this weekend on what she's "willing to fight for," clearly senses the same vulnerability.

Edwards, who was once tougher than Obama in his criticism of Clinton, may now profit as the onlooker in a Clinton-Obama slugfest. During his Nashua appearance last week, Edwards smilingly noted that "Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton have been bickering about their health care plans." Edwards said he shares Clinton's view that universal health coverage would be impossible without a mandate on individuals to purchase insurance. Obama's health plan contains no such mandate.

 The Edwards theory is just that, a theory. The momentum is now with Obama even in a progressive blogosphere that has been favorably disposed toward Edwards. For example, Daily Kos' regular canvas of its readers found a substantial bump upward for Obama between October and November.

Given the flow of the news, he has to be. Edwards needs a January surprise. But if he achieves it and pushes one of his leading foes into third place, he will revolutionize the Democratic campaign.

By E.J. Dionne, Jr.