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CAMPAIGN '08: SOUTHERN FLAVOR

For Edwards, the trail leads home now

He hopes for a boost Jan. 26 in his birthplace, South Carolina, after placing third in Iowa and New Hampshire.

January 10, 2008|Seema Mehta | Times Staff Writer

CLEMSON, S.C. — Presidential hopeful John Edwards, speaking in a sunny brick courtyard Wednesday at the college he once attended, basked in the sweet air and the attention from nearly a thousand people at a noon rally at Clemson University.

"Man, I can tell I'm back in the South," he said before he was interrupted by cheers. "And it feels good."

Just how long that feeling will last is uncertain.

South Carolina's Democratic primary will be held Jan. 26. Edwards was born here, represented neighboring North Carolina in the U.S. Senate and won the Palmetto State's 2004 presidential primary by 15 points. But this time, he is a distant third in state polls, overshadowed by well-financed rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.

Edwards' campaign advisors insist that no single state will make or break his candidacy.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," spokesman Chris Kofinis said Tuesday, when Edwards placed a distant third in the New Hampshire primary.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, January 11, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Democratic candidates: An article in Thursday's Section A about the race for the Democratic presidential nomination said former Sen. John Edwards finished third in the Iowa caucuses. He finished second. A headline on another article about Edwards' campaign heading into South Carolina also incorrectly said he finished third in Iowa.

But political observers think the state is vital to his political future.

"This would seem to be a natural proving ground," said Robert Oldendick, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina.

Edwards has visited the state more frequently than his rivals have. A Nielsen Monitor-Plus survey of television ads from Dec. 16 to Jan. 1 and radio ads from Dec. 2 to Jan. 1 shows that Edwards' spots appeared 2,237 times in South Carolina. Obama's ads aired 227 times, Clinton's four. Edwards recently unveiled a sixth ad, which the campaign calls "Native Son."

Edwards highlighted his home-state roots at the rally at Clemson, which he attended for one year and where he was a walk-on member of the football team. He urged supporters to reach out to other voters, and emphasized his rural roots as the son of a millworker who grew up in humble towns in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina.

"We have to make certain that every primary voter in South Carolina knows that I was born here," he said. "I know what your lives are like; I do not have to read this in a book."

Speaking to reporters after the rally, Edwards acknowledged the state's significance.

"The South Carolina primary is enormously important because it's the first time we've had a primary in the South, the first time we've had a primary that has a large African American population," he said. "So I think it's a place that's a good test for all three of us."

It's the popularity of Obama and Clinton that is hurting Edwards, not his populist rhetoric, said Scott H. Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

"His message resonates this time, as well as it did last time," he said. "He is just outshone by two huge stars in the firmament. It's like holding a candle between two massive spotlights."

Edwards faces an uphill battle, and political observers doubt that in two weeks he can move voters into his column. Though African Americans, who could be a majority in the Democratic primary, have an affinity for Edwards' message, they also have a deep loyalty to the Clintons and a strong attraction to Obama.

"Edwards really is going to have to do something spectacular to move up in the pack," said Carey Crantford, a Democratic pollster based in Columbia, S.C. He said, however, that the race remained fluid and there would be another debate before the primary. "There's a whole lot of campaigning yet to be done."

Susan Chandler, 58, a Clemson resident who works in the university's financial aid department, supports Edwards -- but "I am concerned" about his prospects, she said.

Chandler, who used to be a social worker, said she was drawn by Edwards' pledge to fight the special interests that he says control the federal government.

"The middle class is disappearing," she said. "As a social worker, you see things that make you want to scream, and you know the system has to change. He's the only one I hear consistently saying things like that. . . . I'm glad he's still going on and putting out his message. He's a native son. That will help him, I think. I hope."

--

seema.mehta@latimes.com

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