Edwards has hitched himself to the Obama wagon: Could that doom them both?

In the afterglow of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s stunning “comeback” — which was neither really stunning, given her well-known tenacity, nor a comeback, as MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann pointed out, given that two weeks ago she was the presumptive frontrunner — most media pundit types are chalking up the Democratic contest as a two-candidate race. Certainly Barack Obama’s stirring victory in Iowa and Clinton’s emotionally charged win in New Hampshire have proven that both are formidable candidates. And that their see-saw battle may be epic when all is said and done.

But what about John Edwards? He’s still in the race, you know. And though his chances of getting the nomination are dwindling with each passing week, he’s hardly sounding like he’s packed it in. Tuesday night he continued to sound off on his angry, populist message about poverty and homelessness while declaring that “this race is not about me.”

Well, it certainly isn’t, but the Edwards campaign could be very much about the other two candidates. “The Edwards presence has an effect on Obama,” says Dave Nagel, a former congressman from Iowa and former chair of the state’s Democratic Party. “He has basically brought his message in line with Obama’s.”

Conventional wisdom — less wise than usual since campaign ’08 really kicked in — would hold that Edwards is a frustration for Hillary, given that Edwards keeps playing Obama’s wingman whenever the two decide to attack Clinton or vice-versa. But things changed in New Hampshire. For starters, Clinton “humanized her campaign,” as Nagel puts it. Secondly, Edwards had no problem hogging up air time during his post-primary speech, signaling strongly to the upcoming primary states that he wasn’t backing down — and that he’s running a campaign very similar to Obama’s.

“The message is the same kind that would draw people to Obama,” Nagel says, “and the question now is: Does Edwards draw people away from him?”

If so, it would be counter-productive to the Edwards anti-special-interest stump, which is a not-so-subtle swipe at candidate Clinton. The irony is that though Edwards reportedly has a strong distaste for Clinton, his continued campaigning might help her through the primary season.

“Certainly he has every right to offer his candidacy,” Nagel says. “He put four years into it.”

But Nagel, who did not support a candidate in Iowa, says that Edwards needed a stronger showing in one of the two states thus far.

Edwards no doubt is looking to Jan. 19 and South Carolina, where he was born, with anticipation and anxiety. According to The New York Times, Edwards has aired some 4,500 television ads there, compared to 1,400 for Obama and 727 for Clinton, but is still running third in polls. And Edwards is taking public money, unlike his two chief rivals, and may have trouble coming up with matching funds — leading Nagel to speculate that Edwards may “suspend” his campaign after the Feb. 5 round-up. In other words, in order to remain viable, Nagel says, “Edwards has to win.”

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