COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA — On the night John Edwards put everything he had into South Carolina and got a must-win victory on the back of his populist message about “Two Americas,” he celebrated with merry — and relieved — supporters at Jillian’s, the hip Columbia nightspot where Hootie and the Blowfish played a benefit concert last Friday.
“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!”
Edwards’ trademark “Two Americas” speech appealed to blacks, to white progressives and to working-class voters who felt very much part of the “other” America of which Edwards speaks. South Carolina has lost some 58,000 manufacturing jobs over the last three years, per federal statistics.
“This campaign is something I feel very passionate about — I’m a working man,” said Mike Evatt, a white supporter who warmed up the crowd before Monday night’s rally in Seneca in the western foothills. “I work over at one of the manufacturing plants. We’re worried about our jobs. We’re worried about our health care. And this is something that I take personal.”
Of course, no need to tell African-Americans about Two Americas in a state where the Confederate flag flies at the state house, where interracial dating was banned at Bob Jones University in Greenville, and where the radio jockeys’ preoccupation this week was glorifying Bush’s Vietnam-era stateside service in the National Guard. South Carolina blacks have known about separate and unequal for the better part of 300 years, certainly when it came to voting rights. And though Jesse Jackson, a Greenville native, won two Democratic presidential primaries here, the state has been assuredly Republican in the presidential column for more than 20 years, faster than you can say Jefferson Davis.
Black voters knew that Tuesday could be their main opportunity to influence events, which to many meant turning from Sharpton, the only African-American in the field. Sharpton still claimed success, noting that he’d outdrawn big names in the field, including former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, with a grassroots, no-TV effort that went from church to church. Overall, exit polls indicated that black voters narrowly favored Edwards over Kerry, with General Clark apparently dropping like a stone despite a massive air war on TV and radio, and a natural appeal to older black voters and the state’s huge veterans’ contingent. Kerry also made a late and effective play for the veterans, sending down a seeming regiment of admiring military buddies. Clark’s radio ads, in turn, openly branded the 2000 election as stolen by George Bush, much as Sharpton has. But voters used that logic as a reason to tilt toward Edwards and Kerry.
College professor George Yeldell, an African-American, was one who second-guessed his Clark leanings. “What really kind of got me interested in Clark was that President Clinton said, ‘This is a man we should watch,’” said Yeldell, who heads the education department at Columbia-based Allen University. “I think that’s kind of strong coming from Bill Clinton.” But Yeldell came out impressed from a Monday Edwards rally: “I kind of like what I see. The most important thing is that he be able to beat Bush.” And was that more important than all other considerations? “Bigtime,” he said, adding that he’d have to give Kerry more consideration, too.
Kerry’s rise was impressive, coming from a 1 percent standing in the polls before his win in Iowa. Back then, he trailed even Carol Moseley Braun, who dropped out before Iowa. Kerry volunteers flooded the South after New Hampshire, initially slowed by an ice storm that brought commerce to a standstill for most of last week.
At the crowded, cavernous Bible Way Church, where Edwards spoke Sunday, Kerry and Sharpton supporters papered hundreds of cars in parking lots that stretched across acres. But Edwards had blunted their pull among the church’s black congregants.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” said 26-year-old barber Adrian Hammond. “Al Sharpton — he is the man. But unfortunately his skin color has a lot to do with the polling. If you put what Sharpton had to say in Edwards’ body, he’d be the best person to ever hit this thing.”
Teacher Kenneth Stokes, 25, standing nearby, was not so sure. “Al Sharpton has been one of those so-called leaders,” said Stokes, “and he hasn’t done anything, to me, to show that he’s a Martin Luther King type.”
Kersten Ellison, 15, was even less sympathetic. “You could say the milk was fresh and Reverend Al Sharpton would try to turn it racial.”
Her mother, Pat Ellison, said Edwards’ arrival on the scene had sealed her decision: “I had been kind of teeter-tottering back and forth between Edwards and Dean.” Ellison embodies an evolved South Carolina. She’s a single mother and beautician whose business partners are white, as are most of her customers. Daughter Kersten dates a white classmate. While Kersten dislikes some comments and looks she gets, she still does what she wants.
It’s an imperfect but huge stride from the South Carolina recalled so vividly by Ellen, a white Seneca retiree who did not want her real name used. She recalled when mixed-race couples could be killed, and how she feared for her safety merely for driving around with her boss, a black man who administered an affirmative-action program at a local college. The black administrator once pretended to be her driver, to get her out of a scrape with two threatening white women. Ellen clearly adored the memory of her black colleague, and she likes Edwards’ inclusive message and his focus on jobs — her late husband had been part of the now-battered textile industry.
But Ellen also favors keeping the Confederate flag flying at the capital, because its “history.” She thought Ronald Reagan was “one of the finest gentlemen in the world,” and she praises the integrity and performance of George W. Bush. It’s all enough to blur the clarity of Edwards’ Two Americas and the electoral prospects of that theme. It underscores that America is more complicated than a nation of the rich and everyone else, and that he and the Democrats have a ways to go in uniting the country behind them.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.