- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Sen. John Edwards bolstered his presidential campaign last night by winning the South Carolina primary and finishing a close second in the Oklahoma contest.

“It’s a long way from that little house in Seneca, South Carolina, to here tonight,” said Mr. Edwards, referring to the millworker house his parents were renting when he was born. “In our America, everything is possible.”

With 94 percent of South Carolina’s precincts reporting, Mr. Edwards had captured 124,079 votes, or 45 percent. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts placed second, receiving 30 percent of the votes, or 83,230.

Wesley Clark claimed victory in Oklahoma, but the vote was a near tie at 30 percent each, with the retired Army general edging Mr. Edwards by fewer than 1,300 votes — 90,469 to 89,194.

With solid finishes in the other five nomination contests yesterday, the North Carolina senator said he hopes to emerge as the single alternative to Mr. Kerry, the far and away front-runner.

As election returns rolled in last night, Mr. Edwards waded through throngs of supporters gathered at a billiards hall located in an old warehouse. Onstage, he embraced his parents.

“Tonight, you said the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of tearing people down,” a beaming Mr. Edwards told the crowd of supporters.

The Edwards campaign planned to leave the state today for Memphis, Tenn., and Norfolk, Va., the next two Southern states to hold primaries.

He said yesterday that he was confident of winning and portrayed the race here as being larger than just one primary victory.

“I think this South Carolina primary is a head-to-head contest on who can compete in the South, who can win rural voters and who can do well with African-American voters,” he said while campaigning in Clinton.

All along, Mr. Edwards has insisted that he is the only Democrat in the race who can win over the Southern voters, who in recent decades have fled the party of Roosevelt for the party of Lincoln.

Mr. Edwards likes to tell audiences that the South is not such a Republican stronghold if the right Democrat is running.

“This is not George Bush’s back yard,” he said in a recent stump speech. “This is my back yard, and I can beat him here.”

Mr. Edwards is so confident of his Southern strategy that he vowed yesterday that if he won South Carolina, “I’ll be the nominee.”

In recent years, Republicans nearly have swept Southern states in national elections.

Democrats’ only stronghold in the South is among blacks, who in South Carolina made up 45 percent of the votes cast yesterday, according to exit polls. In recent days, Mr. Edwards grew hoarse from his schedule of three and four daily pep rallies.

“I may be losing my voice,” he told a crowd of supporters yesterday. “But you haven’t lost yours.”

Mr. Edwards’ campaign here has been much like the one he ran in Iowa and New Hampshire: a populist message about two Americas.

But he has a special hook here. The textile industry that his family worked in has seen tens of thousands of jobs move to countries where labor is cheaper.

Ashley Bell, 23, is in his second year of law school and was drawn to Mr. Edwards’ campaign after hearing the candidate talk about growing up in a textile-mill community.

One of the most formative experiences in Mr. Bell’s life was when, at age 14, the textile mill his father had worked in for 20 years in Gainesville, Ga., closed up and moved to Mexico.

“That was a point in my life when you have a whole lifestyle change,” Mr. Bell said. “John Edwards doesn’t just talk about that; he really understands it.”

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