Suddenly, Sen. John Edwards has become the moneybags of the Democratic field. Edward’s $7.4 million shocker has impressed the media, put him firmly back into the race, and probably caused an epic story of regret to be poured into the ears of Bob Shrum’s bartender. Can a well-funded Edwards actually win? Perhaps.

First, Edwards has to keep his money train a rollin’. News that some of his trial lawyer donors allegedly applied the flexible ethics of the ambulance chasing trade to campaign fundraising by illegally bundling employees is trouble. More scrutiny to come. But if Edwards can endure this funny money examination and continue strong fundraising he is in the hunt. To win, Team Edwards must first avoid the trap of being defined in the media simply as The Southern Candidate.

As Al Gore discovered in 1988 being hung with the one-note “Southerner” moniker is pure trouble. It’s a process message and a bad one. Southernstates do not automatically vote for the southerner in the Democratic primary. Instead, Edwards needs what always works: a unique and powerful message for primary voters.

In Iowa, he may find it as the populist hero of the rural voter. While Des
Moines is growing, Iowa’s many small towns and mid-sized cities are trapped in a painful decline. New Edwards media consultant David Axelrod understands this well from running Gov. Tom Vilsack’s campaigns, If Edwards can become the united voice of these worried Iowans, he’ll finish near the top of the caucus. Howard Dean has seized the liberal campus and activist crowd. Now, Gephardt, Edwards and Kerry are locked in a 3-way battle for Iowa’s older more regular Democratic voters.

To breakout, Edwards needs 3rd or better in Iowa, beating Kerry, Gephardt or Dean and scoring a big win. Achieving second place, which I think is possible for him, would be a grand slam. Unlike the other three, Edwards benefits from low expectations in both Iowa and New Hampshire. He is well positioned to become the momentum candidate and under the tight Democratic calendar a momentum candidate is likely to win, particularly one with enough money to run the table after New Hampshire.

If Edwards scores in Iowa, the national media will discover his economic populism message and give it big national play, generating a strong bump into New Hampshire and beyond. The Democrat leadership would quickly embrace Edwards if Kerry and Gephardt falter; they know that southern white protestants make the strongest general election candidates for Democrats. Edward’s main obstacle in Iowa is Dick Gephardt, who carries a heavy expectations burden and needs to attract much of the same vote to get out of Iowa alive. Conversely, if the other three can stop Edwards cold in Iowa, he loses his best chance to catch the free media ride any successful candidate needs.

Can Edwards pull all this off? Possibly. Money helps. But Edwards must overcome his weaknesses. Edwards’ current stump is too light and self indulgent, overplaying his biography as the People’s Lawyer. He sounds like he’s hustling a wide-eyed jury in a dubious lawsuit; you expect him to roll out a cub scout wearing a neck brace and sitting in a wheelchair at any moment. Edwards badly needs to atone for his mistakes earlier in the campaign and pass the ever-threatening lightweight test with far more policy prowess than he’s shown to date. If he’s smart, Edwards will fund a first-rate policy staff, put in serious personal briefing time and far “out paper” the other guys.

Finally, Edwards needs upward poll movement in Iowa to fend off home state critics and feed the press interest his fundraising success has ignited. My guess is he’ll start spending TV money soon in Iowa to frame his message quickly as the race starts up again after the Iraq war. Edwards has television skills and paid media is best way to score a surprise in the next Register Iowa Poll. Edwards’ early TV money allows him to mug Gephardt, forcing him to either match Edwards with money he doesn’t have, or give Edwards the early jump.

There is now a path for John Edwards. He needs to step up to exploit it.