San Diego Union Tribune

February 2, 2004

S.C. a must-win state, Edwards says

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

COLUMBIA, S.C. John Edwards is the closest thing to a favorite son in tomorrow's South Carolina Democratic presidential primary election. So, as they say along the banks of the Pee Dee River and down in Low Country, if he can't win here, that dog just won't hunt anywhere else.

Edwards, who was born in Seneca, S.C., and is now a U.S. senator for North Carolina, has acknowledged that this is a must-win state for him.

"We have to continue the momentum," he told supporters here recently, pointing to his strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and his near tie for third with retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark of Arkansas in the New Hampshire primary. Edwards finished fourth by about 800 votes. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean finished a distant second in New Hampshire.

His concentration on one state is similar to the strategy pursued by Rep. Richard Gephardt, who staked his fortunes on the Democratic caucuses in Iowa, which neighbors his home state of Missouri. Gephardt dropped out of the race for the party's nomination after finishing fourth in the caucuses.

"If (Edwards) doesn't have enough support in South Carolina, how can he make the argument that he can help the Democrats in the South?" said Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University in Atlanta.

A widely watched tracking poll conducted for Reuters and MSNBC by pollster John Zogby shows Edwards locked in a dead heat here with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner. But other polls indicate Edwards has a healthy lead.

Some analysts say Edwards must win by a convincing margin.

"If this is razor thin, if Edwards wins but it's only by a couple of points, then I think that almost is like a loss," said Neal Thigpen, head of the political science department at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C. "Edwards is Kerry's main competition and his biggest threat" nationally.

Edwards returned to South Carolina yesterday after a swing through Missouri, Oklahoma and New Mexico, other states where he thinks he has a good chance of picking up delegates tomorrow. He had the spotlight mostly to himself, with civil rights activist Al Sharpton the only other Democratic candidate to campaign here since Friday.

"It is time for you, the people of South Carolina, to choose a president," Edwards told a crowd after attending services at the Bible Way Church, where Pastor Darrell Jackson put in a strong word of support for him during a rousing sermon. "Go to the polls on Tuesday. I need you, your friends and your neighbors there."

A win here would put Edwards in a strong position in two other Southern states with upcoming primaries Tennessee and Virginia, which vote Feb. 10 and mark him as the strongest alternative to Kerry, Edwards strategists say.

But by then, Kerry could appear even more unstoppable, especially if he wins several states tomorrow and the Michigan primary or Washington caucuses Saturday. Maine will hold caucuses Sunday.

Kerry gained significant momentum in South Carolina after winning Iowa and New Hampshire. A decorated Vietnam War veteran, he has made a strong appeal to veterans, who make up 14 percent of the state's population.

But some political observers believe Kerry will ultimately be perceived as too liberal among Democratic voters here.

Edwards is quick to remind people of his regional roots.

"Probably like a lot of other people in this room, I worked when I was in college," he said recently at South Carolina State University, touting his proposal for college tuition breaks for working youth. "One of my jobs was unloading tractor trailers. As everyone here knows, you spend a summer night in North or South Carolina unloading a trailer and you will get up and study the next day. It's the best motivator you're ever gonna see."

But some shrug off the neighborly pitch.

"I don't think because he's from here it's enough to convince me that he's going to create jobs for me," said Marcus Owens, a construction worker who came to hear Edwards at the Bible Way Church. Owens said he is undecided.

Inevitably, there has been talk of a Kerry-Edwards ticket. In a recent discussion with editors and reporters at The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, Kerry hinted about choosing a Southerner as his running mate if he wins the nomination, although he said he didn't have anyone in mind.

Edwards has tried to discourage the speculation.

"I intend to be the nominee," he said on NBC's "Today" show. "I don't want to be vice president."