Polling a distant third in his native state, John Edwards has never looked so good. At a young voters forum in Columbia, Edwards addressed a modest gathering of 300 or so in a campaign sweatshirt and a pair of blue jeans, with an ink stain on the pocket. "I'm the underdog in this race," he said. "I don't have all the money, the media, the glitz."

Considering that a third to half the room was holding a camera or taking notes, Edwards appeared right about only two of those things. He's lost the shiny, perma-pressed tie he wore in Iowa, and his limited budget and lessened ability to draw crowds means he's doing more events like this one: tucked away in a corner of a convention center, where the buffet lunch upstairs was attracting more attention than the presidential candidate railing against the special interests. At last, Edwards was looking more like the scrappy working man his stump speech claims he is, and less like a trial lawyer channeling the populist voice of Joe Trippi.

If Edwards is staying in the race to keep his message in the mix, the audience members seemed to have a similar idea. During a generously-timed Q&A, people in sloganed t-shirts and green hard hats threw gentle lobs on children, health care, and the environment. Edwards compliantly grounded the questions into the infield, but not before taking a moment to congratulate the speakers on their commitments.

The only real heat came at the end, when a 72-year-old African-American woman, whose parents had not been able to vote, offered a rhetorically-elegant indictment of segregation in public schools. "We're two nations, black and white, unequal and hostile!" she said.

For the first time that afternoon, the audience burst into spontaneous, thundering applause.

--Kelly Nuxoll