About this time in the last presidential campaign cycle, a year before the ’04 Iowa cau-cuses and New Hampshire primary, I remember hearing then-U.S. Sen. John Edwards speak in Raleighand con-cluding that his candidacy was issue-free.

What a difference four years makes.

This time, a year before the 2008 vote starts, Edwards is the issues candidate. Not Hillary Clinton, who must see “issues” as the only way she can lose. And not Barack Obama either, since his election, like Hillary’s, would be plenty of “issue” all by itself.

Ironically, therefore, in a field featuring a possible first woman president and a possible first African American, white-guy Edwards’ campaign remains afloat for the simple reason that he is the one offering the most concrete set of policy changes.

Indeed, Edwards has emerged as the hero of the progressive netroots, and never more so than this month, when he:

  • Stood by his campaign staffers, Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan, against attacks by right-wingers. (Before he hired them, they’d said some bad words on their blogs about the Catholic Church being anti-gay and anti-womenimagine!)
  • Earned a shoutout for his universal health-care plan from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, the mainstream columnist whom the blogosphere respects the most.

In the ’04 race, Edwards started out as a centrist candidate, seekingI said”to identify the most widely accepted Democratic views and articulate them better than the other ‘centrist’ candidates.” A doable task, since the leading centrist was unctuous Joe Lieberman. Edwards’ chance would then depend on whether Democrats thought President Bush was beatable. If yes, they’d want a centrist; if no, they’d pick a fighter.

I failed, however, to reckon with John Kerry, who started the ’04 campaign as a fighter (the most liberal voting record in the Senate) but soon abandoned every fighting position. Your Kerry takeaway: fake centrism = mush = loser.

So now it’s ’08. Bush is unpopular and the Republicans with him, so the Democrats will definitely want a centrist this time, right?

That’s obviously what Hillary thinks as she straddles the war issue and presents herself as Bill Clinton II, pragmatic to the core. She’s got the most experience, she argues. But the one time Hillary was put in charge of a major policy initiativehealth-care reformit didn’t turn out so well, remember?

Meanwhile, Obama sees his star risingbrains, diversity and, assuming he can quit smoking, that youthful glow all in one personable packageand the only thing that could bring him down is being pigeonholed as some kind of radical for, say, caring too much about the poor.

To be fair, electing a woman or a person of color will be radical enough for Americans without also being asked (by Hillary) to make radical changes to health care or (by Obama) to do something about poverty. But with these two so determined to be acceptable, the door to the progressive side of the Democratic party was wide open.

Enter John Edwards.

Edwards, not coincidentally, has made attacking poverty and universal health insurance his two main campaign planks. (A third: backing organized labor.) And Edwards is for getting out of Iraq starting nowby withdrawing 40,000 troops immediatelyand ending in 12 to 18 months.

Edwards’ agenda is hardly radical, but with his new health-care plan, he clearly means to keep pushing the issues envelope as his best chance to outshine Obama and overtake Hillary.

What got Krugman’s nod, for instance, was Edwards’ innovative blend of free-market health insurance with a progressive, single-payer approach: (1) Everyone would be required to buy health coverage, with some government subsidies; but (2) the choices would include private insurers and a government program like Medicare.

Edwards keeps banging away on the “Two Americas” theme he developed in ’04 when he decided to be a fighter, not just a centrist. Since then, he’s been on the front lines of minimum wage-, labor- and community-organizing drives across the country, including in New Orleans.

In the running straw poll of readers of DailyKos.com, the leading progressive political blog, Edwards has gained steadily since July, when he was an also-ran, and by early February held first place (albeit narrowly) over Obama.

And Edwards isn’t just good, he’s also lucky. Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a potential rival for the “white progressive guy” mantle, didn’t run. Joe Biden shot himself in the mouth. Kerry dropped out, leaving a two-way contest between Edwards and Obama for the anyone-but-Hillary vote.

No question the Democratic nomination is Hillary’s to lose. She’s popular with women, and women dominate the Democratic vote. Still, she could lose it, and if she fears coming on too strong, she’s also got to worry about sounding like Kerry. This week, for instance, she again declared that she would have voted against the war in October 2002 if she’d known then what she knows now. That’s mush, especially compared to Edwards’ admission a year ago about his pro-war vote: “I was wrong.”

The difference, as one irate DailyKos blogger put it, is that Clinton wants us to think she had no choice but to swallow Bush’s propaganda. “Have you learned,” he asked her, “that it is not OK to let fearincluding fear for your career in politicsherd you along with the crowd?”

Hillary blames Bush. Edwards blames Bush, and himself.