PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — Seven months after his first town hall meeting, John Edwards faced another hot and stuffy room full of New Hampshire voters Wednesday night. But where the crowd at that first meeting was polite and curious, the crowd at the 100th was passionate and committed.
The Democratic presidential hopeful was well received back in July when he kicked off his town hall tour at a middle school library on a hot summer night. But on Wednesday, the audience was so large about 100 people had to make do with a mini-meeting held in the VFW hall basement before Edwards arrived upstairs for the bigger group.
Unlike at many of his earlier appearances, Wednesday's crowd frequently broke into applause during the North Carolina senator's stump speech. And they chimed in at all the right places, such as when Edwards asked them who pays for the prescription drug ads they see on television. "We do!" the audience yelled in unison.
Buoyed by his second-place finish in the Iowa caucus earlier this week, Edwards emphasized his history of surprise victories - from his days as a trial lawyer to winning his Senate seat in 1998.
"I beat 'em, then I beat 'em again, then I beat 'em again," he said, referring to his courtroom triumphs but clearly suggesting another upset could be in store in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.
When a woman in the audience expressed skepticism that he would be able accomplish his far-reaching goals of loosening the grip of special interests in Washington, Edwards said he would take a direct approach.
"If we have a president who walks out on the White House lawn once a week and says to the American people, 'I want you to know what your system of financing political campaigns has cost you this week,' and on the following week, he's on the White House lawn saying 'This is what it cost you this week. This is what the lobbyists are doing to your democracy, I guarantee you will see a groundswell," he said.
Edwards made his remarks as he campaigned in two states - South Carolina and New Hampshire - with distinctly different electorates and political challenges.
The town hall meeting capped a day in which Edwards spent time in two key states - New Hampshire and South Carolina, which holds its primary Feb. 3.
In Greenville, S.C., he told voters he can beat President Bush in every region of the country, drawing applause when he said the key to victory was "talking like this, in the south."
Hours later, at a small New England diner, he broadened that appeal when one voter asked how he could fulfill his legislative agenda with a GOP-controlled Congress.
Edwards responded by stressing the importance of increasing Democratic strength in Congress. He added that the key to that is prevailing in swing seats such as the one held by retiring Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a conservative Democrat.
"The question is who on the top of the Democratic ticket can go every place in America and campaign with the candidates and strengthen their ability to get elected. And who will make it more difficult for them to get elected?" Edwards said.
"So if you're a Democrat running in a tight race ... in Georgia, do you want John Edwards campaigning with you? Do you want Howard Dean campaigning with you? Do you want John Kerry campaigning with you?
Ron Turner, an undecided voter who heard Edwards in Portsmouth, said the senator's strength in the South is a selling point.
"I'm looking at how to get a deviant administration out of the White House," he said. "In order for a Democrat to beat Bush, he's got to take a lot of southern states. I think Edwards may be the only guy who can do it."