MILWAUKEE — Though he has won just one out of 17 presidential nominating contests, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina beamed Tuesday as he claimed a giant step forward for a campaign many may have underestimated.
His surge into second place in the Wisconsin primary, reminiscent of his roaring finish a month ago as the runner-up in the Iowa caucuses, gave Edwards a clear shot at what he has craved: a faceoff with the front-runner, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry.
"I've been looking forward to the time when this is a two-person race and people will focus on Senator Kerry and myself," Edwards told CNN. "It now appears that we're very close to that place and maybe already there, and so this is the moment I've been looking for."
Casting himself as a messenger of hope in a state where the beleaguered working class has been wracked by mounting job losses, Edwards, a trial lawyer turned senator, plainly struck a chord here as Kerry faded a bit.
At 9:15 p.m. CST, Edwards bounded onstage at the American Serb Memorial Hall here, flashed a high-wattage smile and pumped his fists, thumbs up.
"Today the voters of Wisconsin sent a clear message," he said, grinning.
"The people of Wisconsin spoke loudly and clearly today. They wanted debate. They want this campaign to continue."
Relentlessly upbeat, Edwards staged at least one event in Wisconsin every day for the past week, campaigning here more intensively than Kerry. He emphasized his opposition to the 10-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement among the United States and Canada and Mexico -- and in a fresh critique of the front-runner -- Kerry's support of the accord.
Even though Edwards apparently has outlasted all of Kerry's other chief rivals, significant hurdles face the acknowledged underdog in the two weeks before 10 states, including California and New York, vote on March 2.
Kerry has 15 wins to just one for Edwards, in his native South Carolina. Kerry also has far more delegates and has ginned up a Democratic fundraising machine bent on helping him oust President Bush.
Edwards' increasingly sharp criticism of free-trade accords, which played well here and in South Carolina, may resonate in Ohio and parts of Georgia and upstate New York that have been hurt by job losses. But it may not work as well in parts of California, for example, that have an export-oriented economy and favor reducing barriers to global trade.
In addition, Kerry is moving to blunt the Edwards assault on his trade record. The front-runner picked up support this week from a broad coalition of industrial labor unions that vouch for his intent to support labor-friendly trade agreements in the future.
Then there is money.
Edwards, unlike Kerry, is participating in the public financing system and so qualifies for federal matching funds. That could benefit the underdog, whose campaign claims to have raised $3.5 million in the last month. But he may still be outspent by a front-runner many party leaders believe is fast becoming the presumptive nominee.
Still, Edwards is hailed by many Democrats as the party's most fluid campaign speaker, one who prowls a stage and woos voters with his voice, hand gestures and flashing grins, much as he did as a trial lawyer. Kerry, who has improved on the trail and tried to make a more personal connection with voters, nonetheless can seem wooden by contrast.
"I compliment Edwards. He is doing a fine job," said Dennis Mehiel, New York state chairman for Kerry. "But at the end of the day, we've got a big lead in delegates. I'm just wondering whether anybody's going to have the resources to compete against our candidate in 10 states in two weeks."
Edwards' advisors believe paid TV advertising may count less in the coming days than a burst of media attention that until now had been focused predominantly on Kerry. For instance, this week Kerry appeared on the cover of Newsweek, while Edwards didn't rate a mention anywhere in the magazine. That is expected to change.
"He's been riding a publicity wave," David Axelrod, an Edwards consultant, said of Kerry. "Now it's our turn."
Before the results came in, Edwards began Tuesday to broaden his offensive against Kerry. He sought to maintain his positive tone -- indicating his "high opinion" of the front-runner -- but he also seemed intent on drawing sharper contrasts.
In television appearances, Edwards added a new, personal dimension. Alluding to his working-class upbringing and his five-year tenure in the Senate, Edwards framed his life story as a counterpoint to Kerry's wealthy family roots and far longer congressional experience.
"I want people to know what the differences are between us," Edwards said. "I mean I come from a different background than he does. I have new, fresh ideas about how we can change Washington." Democratic strategists were split on whether Edwards could sustain his run at Kerry.