On Saturday I went down to Richmond to catch dinner and a show. The candidates were playing the Virginia Democratic Party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson dinner and I wanted to see the candidates one last time before the race fizzles out. Sharpton opened the show bringing the house to its feet with his usual act. He even touched a chrome hearted Republican like me with a nice close about being a role model for young African Americans. If he would just fess up and apologize for his all his vile perjuries with Tawana Brawley he would show a little Presidential character and earn a little legit respect.

Kerry was next. I was ready to be impressed. He had just won Michigan and Washington. His staff was previewing this speech as a theme pivot to potent new chowder about Bush the Extreme versus Kerry and the rest of us honest toilers in the Mainstream. I found the speech bloodless. It wasn’t awful, but it struck me as a rote rehash of the same moldy chestnuts you’ve heard in every Democratic candidate speech of the last ten years. The search and replace key on Bob Shrum’s laptop must be worn down to the spring. Kerry has a good six minutes of material, but by minute nine I could feel the crowd losing energy and the speech falling flat. (Despite his best efforts, Kerry just can’t completely hide his liberal poker tells. My favorites were the substitution of “Humankind” for Mankind and the predictable cheesy Valentine to the United Nations.) Rev. Al must have been sadly shaking his head backstage. This guy just can’t jump. Now that he has snatched the nomination Kerry’s fight or flee instincts must be sinking right along with his adrenaline level. He’ll need better game than this to prevail in the big show.

Watching Clark’s performance just reminded me again that he is a classic first time candidate. His speech was sloppy and had the familiar rambling ring of a candidate who is pretty much making it up as he goes along based on what his gut is telling him will play with audiences. The speech felt written in the hotel kitchen. Some biography, a few chunks of five-point plan policy, and a stagnant quart of “can you believe what hypocrites these Republicans are” bromides that I’m sure were quite absent in his old GOP fundraising speeches. Clark is over and his staff needs to break out the smothering pillow and end this sad campaign.

John Edwards was the main event and the man I came to see. He was good, his chops are strong. He and his team understand the theater of politics better than the others. He entered the room right, walking through the audience. He exudes a feeling of purpose. It’s not perfect; Edwards still seems a touch infant. He rushes too quickly through his speech, the words and empathy squirting out across the room like toothpaste escaping a tube crushed in a steel vise. It makes him seem too frisky and young. But the connection is there and it is powerful.

Note to GOP headquarters: This guy is big trouble and we are going to see more of him. We’re very lucky enough he won’t be the nominee this year. In 2008, Edwards 2.0 is going to be a nightmare if he can escape Hillary’s claw and steel pumps. Edwards is a formidable hybrid; part Bill Clinton, as if slick Willie begat a slick Eddie. But Edwards is more sincere and unlike Kerry’s ersatz JFK mannerisms, Edwards has a passion that conjures up an authentic feeling RFK chord. No doubt, this guy is now the best performer the Democrats have by a mile and with a little age and some more grey hair he is going to be a real contender. The crowd loved him. But not enough to change things. Edwards might win a lucky southern state, but the curtain has dropped and Kerry has the prize. The White House’s big, big stumble on “Meet the Press” will dominate the narrative this week move the story to Kerry versus Bush in the general election. I’m not even sure Dean makes it to Wisconsin; the next five days will be eternal for him.