SIOUX CITY, Iowa - Only a half hour after an impassioned John Edwards made his pitch to a standing-room-only crowd squeezed into a community college function room, a cheerful Barack Obama took the microphone amid a sea of voters on a middle school basketball court.
Many of those in Edwards's audience in Sioux City on Friday gave up the chance to line up for the former senator's autograph, so they could rush to the Obama event a few miles away in the far west of Iowa, near South Dakota and Nebraska.
The two men running for president have trained most of their fire on their party's front-runner in national polls, Hillary Clinton. Obama was especially harsh Saturday night at the fall's marquee Democratic event, the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Des Moines, where he suggested that the New York senator has failed to embrace strong principles.
Yet despite the apparent emphasis on Clinton, Obama and Edwards are competing most of all against each other to come out of Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus, on Jan. 3, as the only viable alternative to Clinton.
The three are more or less tied in Iowa polls, but Clinton is so far ahead nationally that it is hard to see both of them finishing Iowa with momentum to challenge her for the Democratic nomination, according to some Iowa political leaders and analysts.
What is clear from campaign events such as these, analysts say, is that many voters who do not like Clinton are still divided between Edwards and Obama.
Steffen Schmidt, a professor at Iowa State University, said if Obama or Edwards were not running, the other would shoot to the top of the pack. "In a way, they are each other's spoilers," he said.
Among voters interviewed at both Sioux City campaign stops - those who are undecided or those who are supporting one of the two men - the common thread was a dislike for Clinton, whom they found too evasive on policy questions such as Social Security, or too bellicose when it comes to the Iraq war and US efforts to halt Iran's nuclear program.
Chris Jensen, 60, an adjunct business instructor, has pledged to caucus for Obama but turned out to see Edwards on Friday.
"I greatly respect Edwards, and any one of them could fall on their face before he's done," Jensen said.
He called Clinton his "least favorite" Democrat. "I think she is supportive basically of the war in Iraq and not really committed to getting out."
As both Edwards and Obama struggle to pull ahead in Iowa, Obama has begun to criticize Edwards for being less than genuine about his passion for fighting corporate interests.
"John wasn't this raging populist four years ago," during his first run for the presidential nomination, the Illinois senator told the
He went on: "If John wants to make the comparison between the work I did as a community organizer - or as a civil rights attorney or as a state senator taking on special interests - to him working as a trial lawyer making millions of dollars, I'm happy to have that discussion," he said.
But Edwards refused to engage, telling reporters in Des Moines that "The differences between Senator Clinton and myself are much more dramatic than the differences between Senator Obama and myself."
Jeff Link, an Iowa political operative who has endorsed Edwards, saw danger in a confrontation between the two men.
"The number one question in voters' minds will be, 'Do you want Senator Clinton to be the nominee?' " Link said. "You can't attack two problems at once. First you have to address that issue, then sort out who else" besides Clinton.
The Iraq war is the subject on which the two candidates have been sounding most alike on the trail in Iowa; that is, they argue they are more against it than Clinton. Obama stresses his opposition to the war from the beginning, and Edwards says he would withdraw more fully than Clinton would, with no ongoing combat missions or military bases.
Edwards also offered a strikingly unvarnished view of a post-war Iraq while he was in Sioux City, where a woman asked about his plan to bring peace to the country. He talked about political compromise and diplomacy, but added that "anybody that tells you that they know that their plan for Iraq will bring peace, I don't believe is telling you the truth because there is no way to predict what is going to happen."
In Sioux City, both men invoked John F. Kennedy. Both turned on their considerable charm when jarringly interrupted by cellphones.
"That's a great ring," Edwards told the offending phone owner in the front row.
When an older woman a few rows from the front actually answered her phone for hundreds of people to hear, Obama paused and smiled. "All right, tell Steve you are going to call him back," he said. "Let me tell this story, sweetie."
In general, though, the two candidates sounded very different notes for how they would change Washington. Edwards was fervent about corruption and the power of lobbyists. Obama spoke of bringing people together and not viewing Republicans as the enemy.
Obama's campaign is trumpeting its organizational skills, which it will need to get people out on caucus night. It claimed 3,000 of the 9,000 people who attended Saturday night's Jefferson Jackson fund-raising dinner as its supporters.
Corey Munson, 37, an Obama supporter in Sioux City, described how his 13-year-old daughter planned to baby-sit on caucus night so neighbors wouldn't have an excuse to stay home.
Edwards has visited all 99 Iowa counties, some of them rural outposts with few people and many fewer Democrats.
"I don't know where they are taking the polls - Des Moines or Council Bluffs," said the Rev. Richard Moore, an Evangelical minister in Sloan, south of Sioux City, who supports Edwards. "But you get out into the rural areas and when you get down to it, people are going to remember that he was there."
Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at email@example.com.