GREENVILLE, S.C. - The clouds are gathering over South Carolina for John Edwards, who has been running for president for the better part of six years.
His crowds this week, while enthusiastic, have been relatively small; at many of his speeches, large sections of the auditorium have been curtained off, or draped with a giant American flag, to hide all the empty seats. Only a handful of reporters are still riding his press bus.
If the polls are right, he will not come close today to winning the state he carried in 2004. Most political observers say that if he cannot do well here - in a state where he has roots, relatives, and a thick local accent - the former North Carolina senator has little hope of gaining the momentum he desperately needs after losing the first three Democratic nominating contests by increasingly large margins.
Yet Edwards displays none of the wistfulness or nostalgia of a candidate in the waning days of a campaign. Instead, he seemed to grow more passionate at every stop this week as he spoke about strengthening the besieged American middle class by providing better job opportunities, college assistance, and healthcare for all.
In one rural hamlet after the next, Edwards fixed his toothpaste-commercial smile as he signed yard signs, posed for pictures with elderly women, and insisted he could ultimately triumph - if he could just hang on longer, bypass the media, and get his message across to the people.
But his tone has at times taken on a note of frustration. Yesterday, on his final full day of campaigning before todays primary, he presented himself as an aggrieved underdog, telling audiences that he has been a victim of big-money politics and a national media fixated on his two rivals.
He urged a crowd in Greenville to send the country "a big surprise" by voting for "the one out there in the trenches" who is fighting the special interests that he said have bankrolled rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
"They may have all the money, they may have all the media attention, but I've got you," Edwards told a cheering crowd of about 300 at Tommys Country Ham House.
David "Mudcat" Saunders, a consultant to the Edwards campaign, said in an interview this week that the media has framed the Democratic contest as one between the potential first African-American nominee and the first woman.
"They're historical bookends, and we're sandwiched in the middle," Saunders said. "We've definitely won every single debate, and it hasnt been reported."
Edwards's performance in Monday nights debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he remained above the fray as Clinton and Obama squabbled repeatedly, appears to have helped him; his poll numbers have gone up slightly in the last few days, bringing him within striking distance of second place in some surveys. He has a new line that the crowds love: "I'm proud to represent the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party."
His hardcore supporters here seem neither downcast nor resigned; most are as indignant about his treatment in the media and as feisty about what lies ahead as the candidate is.
Fred Crenshaw, a 69-year-old retired postal worker who came to see Edwards at a hamburger stand in rural Laurens yesterday, said the political media is "obsessed" with Clinton and Obama.
"You watch these shows - which being retired, that's all I've got to do - and theyre like the Golf Channel on Tiger Woods," he said. Still, he and other backers said they still believed Edwards could win South Carolina.
"I'm hoping the press is proven as wrong as they were in New Hampshire," said Nancy Allen, a 60-year-old retired middle school teacher from Greenville, referring to Clinton's surprise victory.
Allen's daughter, Katherine King, 30, said she knocked on 90 doors for Edwards on Thursday and found surprising support for him, even in conservative neighborhoods.
"Greenville is so Republican, when I was canvassing I expected Republicans to be really mean," she said. "But the reception for John was overwhelming."
Almost universally, his fans said that even if he loses South Carolina, they hoped Edwards would stay in the race until the national convention in August, because they believed he enriched the debate or they thought he could be a compromise candidate at a brokered convention.
"That's how Lincoln won the presidency," said Karen Reagle, 65, of Atlanta, who came to South Carolina to volunteer.
The Edwards inner circle promises he will stay in the race, whatever happens here today. Yesterday, the campaign announced plans to visit Tennessee, Missouri, and Georgia, three of the 22 states with Democratic contests on Feb. 5, tomorrow, and Monday. Nearly all primaries or caucuses award delegates on a proportional - not winner-take-all - basis, which means a candidate can keep collecting delegates without winning a state.
Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to Edwards, said the objective "is to every day fight for another grip on the ledge and pull ourselves up, which is what weve been doing, and we're going to continue doing, till either somebody gets the nomination or we get it.
"No one has it, no ones even close to it right now," Trippi argued. "And with three candidates in the race, one with our message and two with their money, it's hard to see how one of them gets the nomination outright if we're fighting."
The campaign points to signs that things are looking up - in addition to the bump in the polls, Edwards raised $3 million online this year, more than the campaign had brought in over the Internet during the fourth quarter, including $230,000 on Thursday.
Asked which state Edwards could win, if not South Carolina, Trippi rattled off a list: "Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Utah, Alaska, Indiana, Idaho, Virginia - there's all kinds of states down the road that are all possibilities for us."
But South Carolina would seem the friendliest ground for Edwards. Emphasizing his Southern roots, he spent Wednesday and Thursday on a "Back Roads, Back Home Barnstorm" tour of the state's rural communities.
At each stop, his opening act was bluegrass legend Dr. Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys.
Wherever he went, Edwards told crowds that he understood them like no other candidate could because he was from the South, because his father had worked in a mill, because his parents, just like theirs, had done everything possible to give him a chance to have a better life than they had.
"Nobody has to explain it to me," he said, over and over.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.