“It’s a long way from the little house in Seneca, South Carolina, to here tonight,” Edwards told a crush of the faithful and the media, reminding locals for the umpteenth time of his birthplace in a South Carolina mill town. Edwards polled well with moderate and conservative Democrats down here with a positive, not-very-specific message. If the race does boil down to Edwards and Kerry, Edwards will have to emphasize differences between them and decide whether to tack to the left or right of the Massachusetts senator.
But the immediate issue before Tuesday night was whether Edwards would go home to Raleigh or to campaign stops in Tennessee. It was on to Memphis last night, as his staff hastily made plans to visit Michigan, too, with a dark-horse campaign that’s suddenly viable for at least another week.
The senator from North Carolina finished surprisingly strong, getting 45 percent of the vote. John Kerry got 30 percent and underfunded Al Sharpton 10 percent. Sharpton outpolled General Wesley Clark, but claimed fewer black voters than either Edwards or Kerry, according to exit polls.
Even before Tuesday night, Edwards was hoarse and showing the strain of 20-hour days here trekking from black churches to Super Bowl parties, from religious schools to rock concerts. Like no other aspirant, he raced end-to-end across this Dixie stronghold, from the port of Charleston to the western foothills where he was born. His showing staked out his claim as the candidate who could win in the South.
This Southern success was a message intended for Democrats at large — as well as Democratic contributors. At one point, Edwards’ campaign had gone into debt to build momentum, but he asserted on Tuesday that his finances are strong.
By any measure, he trails front-runner John Kerry. And he’s still trying to put daylight between himself and fellow Southerner Wesley Clark. In Oklahoma, where he spent so much face time, Clark won by the barest of margins,
voters divided almost evenly between him and Edwards, with Kerry not far behind. Clark and Edwards will now battle in Tennessee and Virginia, where Edwards hopes that his traveling Tar Heels can mobilize as they did in South Carolina, where his volunteers won the ground war in both numbers and intensity.
Edwards’ skeptics dismiss him as a regional candidate. But until Tuesday, it wasn’t clear that he could win anywhere. South Carolina became the place where he could no longer score by exceeding expectations. He had to win by winning. He’d hoped to hop more to other states, but his campaign concluded that he needed to be in South Carolina to prevail.
His double-digit triumph preserves perhaps his chief raison d’être: the logic that any Democrat who can win Deep South states in the fall against President George W. Bush could punch a ticket to the Oval Office.
“The South is not George Bush’s back yard,” Edwards thundered at a Monday rally in Columbia, adding a new theme to his stump speech. “It is my back yard.” The crowd roared for 12 seconds while Edwards, a youthful 50-year-old, pumped his arms with thumbs up. “You give me a shot at George Bush, and I’ll give you the White House.”
Edwards played front-runner all week, traveling in an oversized red-white-and-blue painted bus that blared rock music to passersby. He entered rallies waving, permanently grinning, to the recorded strains of John Mellencamp belting, “I was born in a small town.” The crowds mixed true believers with the willing curious — seeded by campaign volunteers and staff shouting and waving signs to maintain the amped-up feeling. Edwards’ delivery was pumped, impassioned, charismatic — Huey Long with a soundtrack. He personified energy the way Joe Lieberman came to stand for dull.
“I feel like I’ve just seen Elvis,” commented one bystander.
Edwards, a skilled trial lawyer, had the right closing argument for the Palmetto State, talking repeatedly of Two Americas, one for the wealthy and the big corporations, and the leftovers for everyone else. He focused especially on black voters, who made up close to half of the electorate.
“I don’t have to tell the people in this room that we live in an America that in far too many ways is divided by race,” he said on Sunday in a reception room at the Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, south of downtown Columbia. “Now this is something I feel an enormous personal responsibility about. We have grown up in the South in the ’50s and ’60s, saw the same things all of you saw . . . We should be leading when it comes to civil rights.” He paused. “And I want to say one other thing: I have heard on television that some of the pundits debate about where in America we should talk about equality, race and civil rights. I’ll tell you where: everywhere!”