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Edwards struggles to hold South Carolina

The temptation of the Democrats' high-powered candidates may be too much for the South Carolina voters who helped John Edwards to his only presidential primary win in 2004.
John Edwards South Carolina
Presidential candidate and former Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., speaks to a crowd at Swinton Auditiorium at Benedict College in Columbia, S.C., Monday, March 19, 2007.Anne Mcquary / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The temptation of the Democrats' high-powered candidates may be too much for the South Carolina voters who helped John Edwards to his only presidential primary win in 2004.

With its status as one of the four early voting states in the 2008 nomination race, South Carolina could again provide a much needed boost to Edwards' campaign. But state Democrats are attracted to rivals Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, with Edwards struggling to hold onto his previous support.

Some voters say Edwards, the native son from Seneca, S.C., had his chance and they're looking for someone new.

Tige Watts, who supported Edwards in 2004, said at a recent gathering of Clinton supporters that Edwards wasn't getting his vote now. "I think he's just had his time," said Watts, of Columbia, S.C.

Clinton inroads
As candidates step up their appearances in the state, Clinton's name is the one most frequently mentioned.

"She's a woman. She ran the White House when her was husband was there," said Erma Aragon, 77, who is now undecided three years after helping Edwards take 80 percent of the vote in her precinct in this town about 30 miles north of Columbia.

Some voters also said Clinton's experience as first lady is a reason to pick her over other candidates.

"Hillary Clinton has a strong background. Bill Clinton was real good for us. The fact that he's in her corner gives her 50 percent for writing her name down," said Damon Young, a 33-year-old barber in Columbia, where Edwards spoke at a historically black college Monday.

Conflicted over Edwards
The former North Carolina senator stressed the need for a national energy policy in his address to more than 300 people at Benedict College. Edwards also answered questions from the crowd about sex education and gun rights.

"I do believe in the Second Amendment," Edwards said. "People who use their guns for hunting ought to be able to do that ... but we don't need 6-year-old children shooting 6-year-old children with pistols."

He also said schools should provide education about safe sex and abstinence to stem to the spread of AIDS.

"We should teach in our schools both abstinence and prevention," Edwards said. "Teenagers are going to be teenagers."

Remmer Vereen, a black math professor who supported Edwards in 2004, said he's feeling conflicted this time. He said he likes Clinton, but also is drawn to Obama because of race. That Edwards is originally from South Carolina is still a factor as well.

"This year is really confusing," Vereen said.

Loss of friends and neighbors?
Political analysts say both Edwards and Arizona Sen. John McCain may be rejected by voters who picked them in past elections.

"Candidates can become stale if they're out there long enough. It is very difficult for candidates to come back after losing four years earlier," said Bill Moore, a political science professor at the College of Charleston. "Edwards ran. Edwards lost. The No. 1 thing people are looking for is a candidate who can win."

He also said that a win for Edwards in South Carolina will be critical, in part because of his native son status.

"The media will interpret a loss in South Carolina as a loss of support among friends and neighbors," Moore said. "If he can't do well among those with whom he was raised and had a political career, it's the kiss of death for him."

Edwards already has seen some key defections. State Sens. Darrell Jackson and Robert Ford, two black legislators who take much of the credit for delivering the black voters key to Edwards' 2004 win, are backing Clinton.

Edwards' supporters say his current campaign is buoyed by a wealth of volunteers, and is far more solid than his previous campaign, in which he won the state while struggling to raise money and remain viable. John Kerry later picked him to be his vice presidential nominee.

But that was before Clinton and Obama. In the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll, the two candidates lead the field, with former Vice President Al Gore third and Edwards fourth.

Staying with Edwards, but...
John Moylan, the Columbia lawyer back aboard as Edwards' state chairman, said this time his candidate has a solid corps of volunteers.

"We have a tremendous amount of support around the state. We would much rather be campaigning where we are than anybody else," Moylan said recently. "We have both a breadth and depth of support that I don't think any other candidate has."

Marilyn Armstrong, a 53-year-old technical writer in Charleston, says she is working hard to help Edwards - heading one of his volunteer groups.

In December, she attended an event on the South Carolina leg of Edwards' announcement tour just to be sure he still had the potential that drew her support in 2004. She decided on the spot he was sharp and merited her support.

But even her eyes have strayed a bit. "I like Obama," she says. "I think he's really cool," Armstrong said.

Still, she's sticking with Edwards. "He's my main pick," Armstrong said. "The issues and everything he stands for are the same things I believe in."