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John Edwards's Southern Strategy

Is the liberal senator from North Carolina really capable of winning the South? Would he even need to?

10:00 AM, Feb 3, 2004 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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JOHN EDWARDS has a problem even if he wins the South Carolina primary today.

He has targeted South Carolina as his "breakthrough" state and for good reason: It happens to be his home state, and it shares a border with North Carolina, which he has represented in the Senate since 1998. If Edwards is unable to win in South Carolina, his candidacy is over. But if he wins, it will be easy to discount the vote for him as an expression of Carolina pride. It will be a victory but with an asterisk, and Edwards will have to hope some other state provides--and soon--his first unqualified triumph.

Edwards' candidacy is testing his contention that the Democratic party can't win the presidency unless its nominee wins some Southern states. He reminds all comers that no Democrat has captured the White House without taking at least five Southern states, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976 and Bill Clinton did twice, in 1992 and 1996. Edwards offers himself as a sequel to Carter and Clinton, a Southerner who can win states down South and therefore the White House.

The implication of Edwards' candidacy is that his politics aren't as liberal as the politics that dominate his party--indeed that his politics are moderate enough to attract decisive support in a region that has grown more conservative, and more Republican, over the last three decades. Note: George W. Bush swept the so-called Greater South, winning all 11 states of the Old Confederacy plus Oklahoma, Kentucky and West Virginia.

But in the Senate, Edwards routinely opposed the Bush tax-rate cuts, proposed hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending, opposed school vouchers, supported reductions in defense spending, opposed creation of the Department of Homeland Security (siding with objections raised by labor unions), opposed banning partial-birth abortions and supported federally funded abortions. He supported every one of the filibusters of Bush judicial nominees. If you compare all his votes to all those cast by Sens. Ted Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton, you find that he voted as they did 90 percent of the time.

Edwards may try to describe himself as a moderate, but his record in the Senate locates him well within the liberal mainstream of his party.

On the campaign trail, Edwards has done little to distinguish the substance of his candidacy in ways designed to appeal to more moderate (Southern) voters. For example, instead of firmly stating his readiness to use force, even if our allies bail on us, he (like the other major contenders) talks about "working with our allies again," as though that were a sufficient understanding of a president's duty.

Likewise, instead of dissenting from the dubious populism advanced by Howard Dean and John Kerry, Edwards has become its most insistent voice. Edwards now gives a speech titled "Two Americas" that describes a country that social scientists wouldn't recognize--and that, were Edwards the nominee, would have little appeal beyond the liberals who dominate Democratic primaries.

The fact is that Edwards is a more-liberal-than-not politician running for the presidential nomination of our country's liberal party. And the irony of his candidacy is that, should he become his party's nominee, he could win the presidency without winning a single Southern state.

As Democratic strategists Cliff Schecter and Ruy Teixeira write in The American Prospect, the parties always tend to be regionalized, and a century ago, when the Republicans controlled the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast, they won the elections of 1896, 1900, 1904 and 1908 without taking a single Southern state. Today, it is the Democrats who control those regions. And if they do well there on Election Day, they could lose every Southern state and still win the White House. Not that they would want to do that--not that they should want to ignore the South. But they could win--Edwards could win--without it.

We are, of course, getting ahead of the story just a bit. Today will determine whether the liberal senator from North Carolina survives to make his case another day.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard. This column originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News.