Monday, February 2, 2004

SENECA, S.C. — Not since a local girl made it into the pages of Playboy magazine has this small conservative town in northwest South Carolina been the focus of so much national attention.

“We’ve had people driving by all day long,” said Linda Thomas, referring to the tiny pink house next door where Sen. John Edwards, the North Carolina Democrat running for president, lived as an infant.

Though Mr. Edwards routinely mentions the modest three-room rental as his first home, his family didn’t live there very long. Soon after he was born, the Edwardses moved into a larger house they built on the other side of town.

“I don’t guess he spent his first birthday there,” said Mrs. Thomas, whose husband, Broadus, has lived in the house next door since 1939.

The house the Edwardses moved into does not appear in campaign ads, and residents of the middle-class Seneca neighborhood aren’t even sure exactly which house it is.

The issue of Mr. Edwards’ lifestyle surfaced last week at a candidate’s forum in Columbia when someone asked Mr. Edwards how he hopes to relate to the working poor since he’s made many millions of dollars as a personal-injury lawyer and owns a mansion in Georgetown and a mansion on exclusive Figure Eight Island off North Carolina.

Mr. Edwards responded that while his life is an American success story, he hasn’t forgotten the hardships of common life.

To show that, Mr. Edwards has incorporated the pink millworker’s house into his populist campaign for president. It appears in several TV advertisements Mr. Edwards has run all over the country.

“He wants to show people that he came from a small beginning,” said Mr. Thomas, who now owns the house and uses it for storage.

“Somebody said he wants to make the pink house what Abraham Lincoln made of his log cabin,” Mrs. Thomas added.

The Thomases didn’t know the connection between their house and the U.S. senator until Mr. Edwards first contacted them last year about filming the house for campaign commercials.

“He is a doll baby,” said Mrs. Thomas, who allowed the film crew to use her home. “We just love him to death.”

In addition to showing — some around here call it exaggerating — Mr. Edwards’ humble beginnings, the house and surrounding neighborhood figure largely in his campaign. Mr. Edwards often talks about the need to stem the flow of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries, where labor is much cheaper.

Mr. Edwards’ father once worked as a foreman at the hulking mill, which closed two years ago, costing 600 people their jobs and, Mr. Thomas said, letting the tidy mill community deteriorate.

Though the Thomases both voted for President Bush in the last election, they don’t plan to vote for him this year. They are angry over the protracted involvement in Iraq and Mr. Bush’s immigration proposal that will offer millions of illegal aliens a path to permanent residence and citizenship.

They hope to be able to vote for Mr. Edwards.

Seneca Mayor Dan Alexander, a Democrat who has watched textile mills across the area close and go overseas, also hopes Mr. Edwards wins the nomination.

“Him being from a textile family helps him understand our problems,” he said. “A lot of people in this country do need help, and I think Senator Edwards can help them.”

The Thomases, Mr. Alexander and other townsfolk plan to attend a “Welcome Home Rally” being held by Mr. Edwards tonight at a local Baptist church.

But in general, Mr. Edwards — or any Democrat running for president here — faces an uphill battle. In the last 40 years, South Carolina has voted only once to send a Democrat to the White House.

“It used to be all Democrats,” Mr. Alexander said. “A lot of people have switched over to the Republican Party.”

Another son of Seneca — Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham — put it more bluntly.

“We like John because he’s from Seneca,” Mr. Graham said from his home here. “But Bush is going to beat him like a drum. President Bush is very popular around here.”

Mr. Graham and Mr. Edwards were both born in the same hospital.

“Apparently, I was born in the right wing and he was born in the left wing of the hospital,” Mr. Graham said.

He chuckled over Mr. Edwards’ claims to poverty, noting that he himself lived in a trailer home as a child.

“Anybody who owned a house was rich to me,” Mr. Graham said. “His father was a manager at that mill. I bet he wore a tie to work.”

One local resident, who offered directions but not his name, said the publicity over Mr. Edwards reminds him of the time classmate Brooks Richards made the centerfold of Playboy in 1999.

Many people were shocked, he said, but when she rode into town on the Playboy bus and rolled into the Wal-Mart parking lot, “she must have signed a million copies of her picture.”

“That’s the last time we got this much notoriety,” he said.

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