It’s midmorning on the Saturday after Christmas and Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards is busy answering questions about his “Southern strategy” at an upscale Waldenbooks in historic downtown Charleston, S.C. His appearance–part of a two-day string of events the North Carolina senator is staging in the Palmetto state before heading back north to Iowa and New Hampshire–is billed as a book signing for “Four Trials,” in which he writes about cases he handled as a trial attorney and the death of his teenage son, Wade.

A smallish crowd of tourists and a few locals has lined up behind a red velvet rope for handshakes and autographed copies. Key Edwards backers like Democratic state Sen. Robert Ford huddle in the doorway with campaign aides, stepping aside to let in local TV camera crews.

After some brief remarks (“Everything feels like it’s moving forward;” “For me, this campaign is about the politics of what’s possible”) Edwards takes questions from the audience. The first few are softball: What’s his favorite line from the book? What does he think about the proliferation of political candidates who are writing books? Then, they get serious: What are his chances against former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who up to now has been the national leader in both fund raising and the polls? And what is Edwards’ blueprint for winning the South?

“I’m the strongest candidate in the South,” he replies, to that last one. “I’m here and I understand the concerns at a gut level.”

It’s a point not easily absorbed by some of the out-of-town press. A reporter for The Hartford Courant in Connecticut lifts her pen from her notebook and frowns when she hears Edwards’ statement. “You’re talking to someone from the Northeast,” she says. “What do you mean, exactly?”

“Well, a big part of voters in the South are not issue driven,” the freshman senator explains. “They care about issues, but it’s more of a thing inside–that you understand what their lives are about. That’s something you have to have to win in the South.”

A personal narrative is at the core of Edwards’ appeal to voters–and his plan for winning the South. That goal seems a lot closer than it did a few weeks ago, given his surprising second-place showing in Monday’s Iowa caucuses after fellow Senator, John Kerry.

On the road with Edwards in December in South Carolina, in stump speeches and meet-and-greets, he focuses on his upbringing as the son of a textile factory worker and his empathy for citizens from similarly humble roots. In a race where there are few essential policy differences between the leading candidates (except for the war issue), his style poses the sharpest contrast to Dean, the media-dubbed “angry” candidate, who rarely talks about his personal life.

But style is one thing; providing the substance that can get out the Democratic vote in a state that’s gone Republican in every presidential race in four decades–save Jimmy Carter’s in 1976–is another. On that score, Dean’s critique of the Bush Administration appears to be the kind of tough talk that even people in this conservative region want to hear. On the campaign trail in December, his diagnosis that the war is a waste is welcomed by voters of varying ages, races and income levels. What doesn’t seem to register as strongly is what Dean’s going to offer instead–just what kind of person is this Yankee doctor anyway?

One thing both candidates have in common: South Carolina is a critical proving ground for their campaigns. For Edwards, the Feb. 3 primary is a self-described make-or-break test of his appeal as a native son and a moderate. For Dean–who, placed third in the Iowa caucuses–it’s a chance to reclaim his frontrunner status and shed the label of “unelectability” by showing he can attract voters outside his comfort zone.

Politics, palmetto-style
Up to now, the race in South Carolina has been wide open, with several Democratic contenders–notably Dean, Edwards and retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark–all registering significant support. (Kerry, the winner in Iowa, has had a negligible presence here since declaring his candidacy in Mt. Pleasant in September, though that will likely change).

The most recent American Research Group poll done in South Carolina in mid-December showed Dean as the frontrunner with 16 percent, followed by Clark and the Rev. Al Sharpton, tied at 12 percent. Edwards came in third at 11 percent. Edwards has not been first in those statewide polls since September, though the gap between the first tier candidates has never been above the margin of error. Tellingly, the survey found a third of likely Democratic voters were undecided.

Political observers say that should soon shift with Iowa’s results now in and New Hampshire’s not far behind. “But a lot’s going to depend on turnout,” cautions state House member Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a member of the Democratic National Committee who has not publicly endorsed a candidate.

Turnout is tricky in South Carolina, a state where a legacy of poverty and segregation lingers and the electorate is also divided by race. The Democratic base is more heavily African-American than in much of the rest of the country (Thirty percent of the state’s population is black, and in 2000, exit polls showed 53 percent of votes for Al Gore were cast by black citizens.) In fact, blacks could turn out to be the majority of voters on Feb. 3. Also, there are more military veterans, higher rates of unemployment and a larger rural population than in many states.

It’s these factors, political leaders say, even more than where South Carolina’s primary falls on the election timeline, that make the state so important to Democrats in 2004. While it’s unlikely the Palmetto State will go for a Democrat in the general election, it could be an important early test of party issues and approaches.

“This is a chance to prove ourselves in front of a more conservative electorate,” says state Democratic chair Joe Erwin, a Greenville advertising executive. “You and I both know that you don’t win the presidency without winning something in the South.”

Just what it will take to do that isn’t so clear. “Except for Florida, I would estimate that the South is now solidly Republican,” notes Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. “It was solidly Democratic a generation ago.”

Will the heightened attention South Carolina is attracting on the heels of Iowa and New Hampshire energize Democratic voters? Or will the difficulties of attracting support here bolster the idea that the party should simply write off the South?

Among the other questions party activists are now chewing over: Will the economy trump the war as a leading voter concern? Does a Southern populist or a northern challenger have the best shot at beating Bush? Is it the Democrats’ loyal base that’s most important to turnout, or the mysterious swing voters–the “newbies,” NASCAR Dads and young Internet users the media have been chasing?

The personal is political
None of those new groups are much in evidence on the trip from Charleston to Kingstree in the economically depressed northeast-central part of the state where Edwards is making his second campaign stop of the day on Dec. 27.

The view from the car window tells the story: Pawnshops, cotton fields, trailer parks, billboards for gospel stations, shuttered stores and American flags. (“Have a Jesus, Joseph and Mary Christmas,” reads a sign outside the Gilead Baptist Church near Bonneau.)

South Carolina has been among the hardest-hit by the economic downturn since the last election. The state has lost 18,900 manufacturing jobs in the past year alone. The morning edition of The News, Kingstree’s daily paper, is full of reports about the closing of the Georgetown Steel mill some 45 miles away, and the resulting disappearance of nearly 600 jobs.

On this score, Edwards’ personal story as the son of a blue-collar worker and the first in his family to attend college is a powerful draw. At Brown’s Bar-B-Que in Kingstree, he tells a racially diverse crowd of about 150 that “places like this are what my campaign is all about. Unemployment here is over 17 percent. That’s something I have lived with and seen my entire life.”

Edwards ticks off his platform of “not just free trade, but fair trade,” incentives for companies to locate in depressed, rural areas and bonuses for teachers in poor schools. Two women leap from their seats to applaud that last promise, and a current of sympathetic laughter moves through the room like a breeze.

His anti-corporate message is filtered through his biography. “This is personal to me, because I would not be standing here today without great public schools,” Edwards says, his shirtsleeves now rolled up. And later, in answer to a question about why he is running for president, he replies, “Because I myself grew up in the bright light of what’s possible.”

Cezar McKnight, a local attorney who introduced Edwards, says “his background resonates loudly”–especially with black voters, for whom an up-by-the-bootstraps narrative is anything but abstract, even if the teller is now a wealthy trial lawyer.

“The big thing with African Americans that most candidates miss is that their social values are conservative,” says McKnight, who is black. “If your platform presents them with economic opportunity, they will rally. The black community is tired of handouts.”

There is another, subtler message that Edwards is beaming out in his appearances and TV ads–that only a moderate Democrat has a chance of beating George W. Bush. It’s a stance that clearly sets him apart from Dean–whom pundits have insisted on painting as outside the mainstream–though not from Clark, a rival Southerner who’s been making his own appeals to the center.

As the Democratic Party coordinator for four counties, Marilyn Hemingway has had more exposure to the candidates than most voters. A self-employed businesswoman–she’s executive director of The Committee for African American History Observances in Georgetown–she decided early on that Edwards’ approach was the winning one.

“He’s willing to address issues in a calm, reasonable manner,” says Hemingway, a composed young woman with dark, black eyes. “I think Dean has done some positive things as governor of Vermont, but he might alienate a lot of people because he comes across as strident.”

Edwards is certainly doing all he can to underline that viewpoint. When, at the Charleston book signing, he’s asked what the election is about, he says, “Among Democrats, are we going to be a party of only anger and about the past? Or are we about moving forward. I know which side I’m on.”

But Edwards’ nice-guy appeal is a problem when it comes to critical issues like the war in Iraq. In South Carolina–despite its reputation for patriotism–that issue is often viewed through the painful prism of families who’ve seen their relatives in the armed forces sent overseas or returning in coffins. (The first female pilot to be killed in Iraq, Kimberly Hampton, 27, was from Easley, S.C.) Like several other Democratic candidates who voted to allow the Bush Administration to wage the war, Edwards’ criticisms of the aftermath can’t help but fall flat.

His record also raises questions about how much of a challenge he offers to the Republican agenda. Edwards voted for Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” education bill, as well as the civil-liberties-unfriendly USA Patriot Act. In Kingstree, he is quick to reassure a questioner that any gun control policies should “start from the point of protecting Second Amendment rights.” Earlier, in Charleston, when a man complained that Democrats in Congress aren’t doing enough to fight the Bush Administration’s economic and foreign policy initiatives, Edwards could only offer a bromide: “You’re right about that,” he said, moving quickly to the next in line. “We’ve got to take these guys on.”

Platform aside, Edwards is running short of money, relative to his competitors–though the boost his candidacy got in Iowa may turn that around. His campaign did not release fourth-quarter fund-raising totals. On this late December trek, the newspapers report Edwards’ aides are staying with friends to keep costs down, while Dean is busy opening up new offices. (Edwards’ campaign has also vowed to honor an NAACP boycott of the state because South Carolina still flies the Confederate flag, even though political campaigns were exempted).

Even some former backers are worried about his chances. State Sen. Darrell Jackson supported Edwards early on but has since retreated to a neutral corner. “I decided I didn’t get a chance to examine all the other candidates carefully,” says Jackson, who is pastor of the predominantly African-American Bible Way church in Columbia. “I’m somewhat concerned about where Edwards’ campaign is headed. Even if he wins South Carolina, where does he go next?”

Still, supporters are confident that Edwards’ Southern roots and positive message will make the difference–not only in carrying the state, but also in keeping him competitive in the race for the party nomination. “In the end,” says former Raleigh City Councilman Brad Thompson, one of several North Carolina Edwards supporters who made the trip down to Kingstree for the day, “this is about getting votes, not endorsements.”

Outside the box
Drawing Democratic votes in a conservative, Southern region is no easy prospect. It’s the night before Howard Dean’s appearance on Dec. 30, his first in South Carolina in months. He’s scheduled to speak at an early morning breakfast at a restaurant in Florence, a Democratic stronghold in the northeastern Pee Dee region where he’s opening a new campaign office.

At the hotel attached to the restaurant, there’s no welcome sign for the candidate; only a reminder of the “$6 Wednesday Senior Special.” The place has no vacancies, but when asked whether the rooms are full of campaign aides, the clerk at the desk says, “Howard who? No. I don’t know about Dean. We’re full up with deer hunters.”

State Democratic leaders say Dean was slow to set up a campaign organization in South Carolina and took his time about buying the voter lists that are a must for any serious political effort. But since late December, his machine has cranked up, and he now has five offices across the state and plenty of ads on TV.

Mainstream pundits and reporters haven’t delved too deeply into the challenges Dean’s campaign faces here. Instead, they’ve spent their time polishing the portrait of the former governor as a “huffy” lefty, ignoring the varied hues of voter opinion in South Carolina–as well as the ways Dean’s platform and his record might belie his media image (his reluctance to push for a single-payer health insurance system, for example, or cuts in Vermont’s education budget on his watch).

Maybe that’s why, on the campaign bus this morning, the candidate doesn’t chat with reporters in the back. Instead, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas–one of Dean’s many African-American ambassadors–is sent down the aisle to “do the thing on winning in the South,” as one aide calls it.

Lee insists that Dean will remain the frontrunner because, “we’re talking about a new South, a South that’s ready for Howard Dean.” What she means is that geographic, racial and cultural gaps may be less important in this election than the day-to-day problems citizens of the region face.

“If we go back to the bottom line of jobs and education,” Lee says, “I believe we have what it takes to win the South.”

It’s clear there are opportunities here for an outside-the-box Democrat. At Hallmark Square in Florence, which has a Big Lots, a Bingo-rama and a huge shuttered space where the anchor grocery store used to be, Dana Williamson is reaching the end of her shift at Kelly’s Value store.

Although she doesn’t always vote, Williamson, who grew up here, says it’s the double whammy of the war and the economy that’s got her interested in this election. “The main thing that affects me is the war,” she says. “I think it’s terrible. People are dying for nothing. The economy’s terrible, too. A lot of people around here are getting laid off. And Bush–he’s to blame.”

She’s heard of Edwards but isn’t familiar with many of the other Democratic candidates, including Dean. “At first, they all sounded the same and I wasn’t listening,” she says. “But then, when all this war stuff started–I think I need to hear more about what Dean is saying.”

At breakfast the next morning, Dean gets instant applause when he cites his opposition to the war in Iraq (he’s careful to footnote that he backed George Bush Sr.’s Gulf War and the attack on Afghanistan after Sept. 11).

But what he really zeroes in on is the economy. Dressed in a charcoal-colored suit and red tie, Dean holds up the morning newspaper and points to headlines about more job losses in the Pee Dee–a gesture he’ll repeat at other rallies during the day.

“This is the legacy of George Bush,” he barks. “People in South Carolina who’ve been voting Republican for the past 30 years–what do you have to show for it?”

The crowd of 120 or so is a mix of older, African-American labor and community leaders and young, white campaign activists from as far away as Georgia. Reporters from the big, national papers sit in a roped-off section at the back. (See “On the Media Bus,” p. 20.)

Dean addresses his outsider status head on and outlines his own Southern strategy. “You might be asking about that Yankee from way up there in Vermont, can he win in South Carolina?” he says. “Well, I’ll tell you how we’re going to do it. When they start talking about race, we’ll talk about jobs. When they talk about gay rights, we’re going to talk about health insurance.”

In fact, he dismisses the whole idea of a Southern strategy as a way to divide voters. “When white and black and brown people vote together in this state, that’s when we make progress,” Dean says.

His stump speech is peppered with plenty of pointed references to tax breaks for “Ken Lay and the boys” and the “borrow-and-spend” policies of “this credit-card presidency.” But his audiences don’t seem put off by his forthrightness.

“We don’t need a candidate in the middle,” says Eileen Powell, a high school English teacher from nearby Marion who talked her way onto Dean’s campaign bus for the ride from Florence to Georgetown. “Yes, we are the party of ideals and nice guys, but we have to let people know these are not nice people in the White House.”

“People in the Pee Dee see things different,” says Democratic Party activist Legrand Harley at the rally outside Dean’s bunting-and-balloon-covered office in Florence. “In South Carolina, thank God–and you be sure you put that in there–blacks and whites, men and women are coming together. We aren’t worrying about the flag. We’re worrying about jobs. We’ve got to get the message out that Dean is the only candidate who can beat the incumbent because he’s the only one who has a vision that can cure this disease of job loss.”

Winning the South
But does Dean have the best vision among the Democrats? And how well will his feistiness wear as the early primaries give way to the long haul of the campaign? Can he recreate the coalition of blacks and moderate whites that helped put Bill Clinton in the White House? Can he do so without the personal narrative or connections that speak to people in the South–especially with Edwards using those to such advantage?

Dean’s campaign is out to convince people that he can. His official slogan in the Palmetto state is, “Howard Dean for S.C. You Gotta Believe!”

If there’s one thing the former governor needs to work on, his supporters say, it’s his reluctance to talk about himself as a person. “We love our docs in the South, and Howard is a doctor, a healer,” says Sheila Jackson Lee. “I will be emphasizing for him to pitch who he is, to use all the elements he can to get people to know him.”

And there are other challenges. A noontime rally in Georgetown, about an hour’s drive south of Myrtle Beach, was supposed to be at the Steelworkers Union hall. But since the international had endorsed Gephardt, the local was forced to change the venue to a historic mansion on the Sampit River with a view of the closed steel plant.

There’s a huge American flag waving in the breeze and plenty of Dean’s infamous “guys with pickups” in the crowd of at least 300. Also teenagers, retirees, clergy, working folks and lots of reporters.

In his speech here, Dean connects the potent issues of the economy and the war, noting that trade policies that “respect the rights of working people” around the globe will mean “more jobs will stay here and you create countries that are democracies, that don’t want to go to war and harbor groups like Al-Qaeda.”

His closing line is his most radical. “The biggest lie told by people like me is that I’ll solve all your problems,” Dean says. “But the power to change this country is in your hands, not mine.”

Afterwards, he’s received like a rock star as people line up several deep under the live oaks to shake hands, get their T-shirts autographed and implore Dean to come to their town next.

“Ban Fox News!” one fan yells.

“Give ’em hay-ell Howard,” says another, as classic numbers by Willie Nelson, James Taylor and Neil Diamond blast from the speakers.

On the surface, things look pretty friendly. But even many of those holding blue-and-white “Dean for America” signs are not completely in his camp.

Retirees Billy and Becky Powell drove down from Myrtle Beach to hear Dean speak. They were especially interested in whether he would say anything about helping veterans (he did) and improving the economy (ditto).

Still, while they like his message (they’re hoisting a Dean sign), the Powells–like many South Carolina Democrats–remain undecided about who will get their vote on Feb. 3.

“I really like Edwards. I just don’t think he can win,” Becky says.

“Dean seems like he has a chance of winning,” says Billy. “We’ve got to hear Clark now.” EndBlock