Image: John Edwards
Isaac Brekken  /  AP
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards holds a town hall meeting at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in Las Vegas on Monday.
updated 5/2/2007 6:25:38 PM ET 2007-05-02T22:25:38

North Carolina’s John Edwards says he’s the only Democratic presidential candidate with any chance of winning the coveted South.

If early fundraising is any indication, he might be right.

Edwards placed a distant third behind Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in first quarter fundraising, tallying $14 million compared to Clinton’s $26 million and Obama’s $25 million.

But in money raised in the South, Edwards was the leader. From Louisiana to the Carolinas, Edwards easily beat his Democratic rivals and—perhaps more importantly—raised more money than the top three Republican candidates combined.

The two New Yorkers considered front-runners in the 2008 race—Clinton and Republican Rudy Giuliani—fared particularly poorly in the region.

Some Southern states bucked the trend, mostly as a result of steady donations from Palm Beach and Miami in Florida and Virginia’s Washington suburbs.

Counting only Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, Edwards raised $2,723,000. That’s more than six times Clinton’s take of $440,471 and nearly four times the $705,650 raised by Obama, according to numbers compiled by PoliticalMoneyLine.org, an online repository of campaign finance data.

Among Republicans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the way with $1,127,484, compared with $603,723 for Arizona Sen. John McCain and $384,500 for Giuliani.

“For Edwards, he’s a Southern guy and there’s a comfort level there,” said John Anzalone, an Alabama-based Democratic pollster. For Clinton and Giuliani, “it’s kind of like the Pace Picante Sauce commercial: They’re from New York City.”

Dominated by Republicans in recent elections, the South is considered a critical region for GOP presidential candidates. When the party holds the South, as President Bush did in his two victories, Democrats must win about 70 percent of the electoral vote outside the South to compensate, said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, author of “Divided America,” a book on regional politics.

When Democrats are able to peel off a few Southern states—as Bill Clinton did in his 1992 and 1996 victories—they have far more breathing room in the rest of the country, Black said.

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Fundraising doesn’t paint a full picture
Anzalone and others cautioned against reading too much into the early fundraising tallies. The numbers could simply reflect where candidates spent their time or focused their early fundraising. Edwards, for example, campaigned heavily in the South, while Giuliani and Clinton didn’t.

And despite the fundraising, a recent poll from the Pew Research Center for The People and The Press found that Giuliani and Clinton were leading in the region.

Also, Edwards’ was unable to carry even his home state of North Carolina for Democrats when he was John Kerry’s running mate in the 2004 presidential election.

But experts said the money does provide early clues to the candidates’ traction among the South’s opinion shapers and political establishments, while also pointing out potential weaknesses.

Out of her $26 million total nationwide, for example, Clinton collected just $87,900 in Arkansas, where she was first lady for 12 years when her husband, Bill, was governor. She raised even less ($36,100) in South Carolina, which hosts a pivotal early primary and where Clinton is investing significant time and resources.

Likewise, McCain has built an extensive campaign organization in Alabama and visited the state three times in the first three months of the year. But he took in just $73,900 from Alabama, out of $13 million total.

‘A very conservative guy’
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican, said the lackluster fundraising by the Republican candidates underscores what he’s heard from party activists at home: that Southerners are on the fence about the GOP field.

“I think people are just not that fired up, and the intensity level just isn’t where it should be,” he said. “You have strengths and weaknesses in every one of the candidates.”

Kingston, who is leaning toward supporting Romney, predicted that his party could be in trouble in the South with the current front-runners.

“The consensus I hear from people in Georgia is if (Republicans) want to win, they have to have a Southerner on the ticket,” he said, noting that Fred Thompson of Tennessee and Newt Gingrich of Georgia have attracted strong interest by only flirting with a run.

Anzalone said the most surprising early showing came from Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a Mormon. Romney led the Republican field in fundraising nationally and in the South.

“The only thing I can say is that he’s a very conservative guy. He’s a very religious guy, and that fits the white, Southern Republican mold,” Anzalone said.

‘The true Southerner’
On the Democratic side, Rick Dent, an Atlanta-based political strategist, said it’s little surprise that Edwards won the region’s money race given that the South is his base. About half of Edwards’ money came from North Carolina.

But he said the strong support illustrates that many Southern Democratic leaders would prefer to see Edwards atop the party ticket.

“They see Edwards as the true Southerner and the one who can win,” said Dent, who worked on former Georgia Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor’s losing campaign for governor last year.

A problem Edwards faces is that voter turnout in Democratic primaries in the deep South is 60 percent female and 50 percent black, and his chief rivals are a woman and a black, Dent said.

“If he doesn’t do well with those two groups,” Dent said, all else “doesn’t matter.”

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