South Carolina: No Haven for Edwards

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The State / MCT / Landov

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards addresses students at Darlington High School on topics of education, Iraq and energy policy on Thursday, October 11, 2007, in Darlington, South Carolina.

Correction Appended: October 19, 2007

"It's a long way from that little house in Seneca, South Carolina, to here tonight," former Senator John Edwards yelled over a crowd of supporters in Columbia, South Carolina in 2004 after winning that state's primary by more than 15 percentage points. "Tonight you said that the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of tearing people down."

It turned out to be the only primary that Edwards won, but it was on the strength of that impressive victory that he became the vice presidential nominee. His sweeping triumph was due not only to the fact that the former North Carolina Senator was a native of the South, but because he'd garnered surprisingly strong showings in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

Last Thursday found John Edwards back in South Carolina, campaigning in its low country, where sharecroppers still grow the cotton that was once processed in his father's mill. Three and a half years later his message is strikingly similar, that "this is a guy who comes from us, who understands our lives and who will do absolutely everything in his power to make our lives better," Edwards told TIME in an interview.

That 2004 victory, coupled with South Carolina's decision to move its primary to even earlier this election cycle, gave Edwards every reason to believe that the state could jump-start his candidacy in 2008. Instead, just as he is doing in national polls this time around, Edwards is running a distant third behind rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in South Carolina. Clinton, a New York Senator, is up seven percentage points from May to 41% of the vote, according to an American Research Group survey of 600 likely South Carolina voters late last month. Obama, a Senator from Illinois, is also up 12 percentage points from May to 30%. Edwards, meanwhile, is down a whopping 23 percentage points from 30% in May to just 7%. The news is worse when you look at African Americans, who make up nearly half of South Carolina's Democratic primary voters. A Winthrop/ETV poll of black South Carolinians last month found Obama in the lead with 35% of the vote, followed closely by Clinton with 31%. Edwards barely registered with just 3% of blacks saying they planned on voting for him.

Six months ago, when I asked South Carolina Democratic kingmaker Congressman Jim Clyburn who is the favorite to win his home state, he told me Edwards, as the incumbent, was the man to beat. Last week, when I asked him the same question, Clyburn, who is not endorsing any candidate, was a little less sure. "South Carolina could conceivably serve as a firewall for Edwards," Clyburn said. But South Carolina voters want viability: if candidates do well in the first three states they are more likely to do well in the Palmetto State, Clyburn said. In 2004 Edwards "got big headlines coming out of Iowa and that worked well for him in South Carolina. But ya'll got to do the same thing again. If he were to finish out of the top three in Iowa then I think he's finished."

Unfortunately for Edwards, his standing in Iowa and New Hampshire is no better than in his home turf, and his fund-raising woes show through. On the ground in South Carolina he has just one office, with plans to open a second one soon, said Teresa Wells, an Edwards spokeswoman. He has 20 staff members, though Wells declined to say if they are paid or unpaid. Clinton, who also only has one office, has three dozen staffers and has already rolled out radio advertising. Obama has the largest operation in the state with seven offices, more than 30 paid staffers and a slew of radio ads already on the airwaves. Edwards has tried to make up for that deficit by spending more actual time in South Carolina — he's made 15 trips since announcing his candidacy in December, compared with seven by Clinton and nine by Obama. And when he's here, he never fails to remind voters that he's a local. "I am not better than you," Edwards told several hundred students at Darlington High School in South Carolina in a rare moment of unscripted earnestness. "I am just like you."

Sporting an open-collared shirt and a blue blazer with the top button fastened, Edwards paced the school's gymnasium, telling the mostly black students he remembered a similar public school and a childhood of near-poverty. "My point to all of you is: There's nothing you can't do if you believe in yourself and you're willing to work hard enough," he said. The school was chosen to highlight Edwards' plan to revitalize rural education and bring down dropout rates, which in Darlington — and in South Carolina as a whole — top 50%.

Voters, however, often don't see Edwards as one of them, regardless of his humble upbringing. At his next stop at Brown's BBQ in Kingstree, John Medley, 58, an unemployed truck driver from Monk's Corner, ribbed Edwards about his notorious $400 haircut. "He's in a whole other league than me," Medley, who nonetheless supports Edwards, told reporters after the exchange. "This 'uns $8," he added, pointing to his short brown hair.

Edwards laughed it off, saying his current coif cost $9. "It doesn't bother me at all," Edwards told me with a chuckle during our interview. He quickly got serious when I asked if he can afford any more distractions. "Anything that distracts has an impact. [But] that stuff they see, those little clips they see in the national media, they all fall away and they decide: This is the person who's actually ready to be President."

The initiatives Edwards announced that day — a second-chance school system for dropouts, free college and books to students willing to work 10 hours a week and a West Point–like training academy for teachers — are all part of his central campaign platform, that poverty in America is unacceptable. But that message, along with his appeal as a native son, has been undercut not just by his $400 haircut, but also his newly built $4 million house and his previous job at a Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund. (Edwards, who won't disclose how much money he earned from the position, told the Associated Press that he didn't work for the group to make the rich richer, but rather to learn about the economy).

Edwards, however, thinks his message will resonate over time. He noted that at the same moment in the 2004 campaign, he was doing roughly the same in the polls as he's doing now, and he is pinning his hopes on the possibility that Clinton and Obama will flame out much in the way that Howard Dean did. "We're at a very early stage," Edwards said. "Howard Dean had the most amazing buzz last time, not just here but everywhere in the country and the national media was saying, 'It's a runaway' and 'It's all over' about this stage."

But there are key differences between now and then. In 2004 Edwards was the optimistic, youthful candidate who presented a stark contrast to Boston patrician John Kerry, an angry Howard Dean and former Representative Dick Gephardt, who had first run for President in 1988. This time around Edwards is up against a fresh-faced, multi-racial rock star and the wife of one of the most popular recent Democrat Presidents.

"Last time Edwards really was the energy, he was attracting the young voter, the minority voter, everyone was talking about him, he was drawing big crowds," said Blease Graham, a University of South Carolina political science professor. "This time he's being overshadowed by the Clinton energy and Obama appeal."

The original version of this story incorrectly stated that John Edwards had finished second in the 2004 New Hampshire primary and that he is currently running a distant third in polls in Iowa behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama