GEORGETOWN -- Rolling through the mosquito country of southern Georgetown County last week, the day after the Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, John Edwards is confident but realistic about the hard work ahead of him.
The S.C. native and former U.S. senator from North Carolina won the Palmetto State's presidential primary in 2004.
But, with the 2008 primary only six months away, he's stuck in third place, well off the pace set by front-runner U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York and top challenger U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
But if Edwards is worried about his 15 percent support among S.C. Democratic primary voters -- the rough average of his standing in polls -- he isn't showing it.
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"It's been several years now since most South Carolina primary voters have heard directly from me," Edwards said in an interview in the back of a Chrysler mini-van, headed north on U.S. 17. "I will be responsible for reminding them of my story."
Edwards is counting on having time to remind South Carolinians of who he is. He's also betting that he can come from behind again in 2008, as he did in 2004. To do that, he is once again counting on having momentum from earlier caucuses and primaries.
On the campaign trail, Edwards is casting himself as the lone fighter for poor and working-class Americans. He says he has dedicated his life to fighting the big businesses that export jobs, undermine labor unions and profit excessively off prescription drugs and health care.
He did a bang-up job of relaying that message Tuesday, which began with a stop at Kitty's Fine Foods in Charleston where Edwards greeted supporters. Then, it was into the van and on to McClellanville, where he had a 30-minute discussion with environmentalists. Then, it was back in the van and on to Georgetown.
All day, Edwards found good crowds in hot places.
In Georgetown, his final stop, he picked up the endorsement of Steelworkers Union Local 7898. Edwards spoke at the local's union hall, in the shadow of the steel mill that dominates downtown. It was Edwards in his element.
When Georgetown Steel declared bankruptcy in 2003, about 600 workers lost their jobs. The mill was bought at auction in 2004 and about 400 workers eventually were re-hired by what is now Mittal Steel USA.
James Sanderson, president of the Local 7898, said endorsing Edwards was an easy choice.
"He's the only candidate I know of who stands up for the working man in this country," said Sanderson, a former chairman of the Georgetown County Democratic Party.
After speaking and taking questions from a crowd of 150 at the union hall, Edwards said he needs the support of steel workers steelworkers and other blue-collar workers to win the 2008 nomination.
During his 20-minute address to the diverse crowd, some stirring the air with hand-waved fans, Edwards worked himself into a rant against insurance and drug companies that, he says, have too much control over the nation's health-care system.
"I don't want to negotiate with insurance companies," he said, continuing a thread he started during Monday's debate. "I want to beat them. I don't want to negotiate with drug companies. I want to beat them. Do you think these companies are going to give up their power voluntarily? That's a joke."
It's a message that could resonate in South Carolina, where more than 720,000 people are without health insurance.
, often because it's too expensive.
Stuck In third
Edwards needs help in South Carolina.
A CNN poll released the week before the debate had Edwards at 15 percent, well behind back of Clinton, who led with 39 percent, and Obama, at 25 percent. An InsiderAdvantage poll released the day after last week's debate showed Edwards at 13 percent, trailing Clinton, at 43 percent, and Obama, at 28 percent.
Edwards said he wants to remind everyone -- the media and voters -- that he was not the favorite to win in 2004 and it's a long time until the Jan. 29 primary.
"I don't think it will take a lot of reminding," he said. "It will take (some) jogging. It will come back to them."
It's important to remember, he said, that while South Carolina's Jan. 29 primary is early and important, it's not first. Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada will vote before South Carolina.
"Somebody is going to come into South Carolina with momentum," he said. "People will really start paying attention late this year. The key is for them to know a basic question: Who is most likely to bring change and who's proven they can bring change?
"That's the strength of a presidential candidate. If that (message) gets through in the early primary states, I'll be the nominee."
Edwards recalled he was not leading S.C. polls at this point in 2003 but could not say when he took the lead before winning the Feb. 3, 2004, contest.
According to American Research Group, Edwards was at 10 percent in August 2003, behind U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. Forty-eight percent of S.C. primary voters were undecided, the poll found.
By September, Edwards had moved into the lead. He fell as far back as fifth in November as retired Gen. Wesley Clark and upstart Howard Dean of Vermont siphoned off support. In December, Edwards was in fourth, behind Dean, Clark and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
After Edwards placed a surprisingly strong second in the 2004 Iowa caucus, he surged to a convincing S.C. victory.
It's a strategy Edwards hopes to repeat, starting in Iowa, where he has a narrow lead over a fast-closing Clinton.
To win here, though, Edwards will need to grow his own support and pull voters away from the other Democratic candidates. Unlike four years ago, there are fewer undecided voters. Recent polls show between 8 percent and 24 percent of likely Democratic voters haven't settled on a candidate. Swaying voters committed to other candidates, which Edwards must do, will take money. After leading the field of Democrats and Republicans in the first quarter of the year in money raised in South Carolina, Edwards fell back into the pack in the second quarter, which ended June 30.
His fundraising in South Carolina fell off by more than 78 percent from the first quarter of the year to the second. Still, he's raised more money in the state than any other Democrat.
'Carrying their hopes inside me'
Until the voting starts, money is a key measure of a candidate's viability.
But, Edwards says, the ability to connect with voters is equally important at this juncture. He's banking on his ability to connect with people over the next six months with stump speeches like the ones he delivered last week.
Earlier, along the banks of the Jeremy Creek in McClellanville, Edwards held a roundtable discussion at a square table with representatives of a half-dozen conservationist groups.
Through topics as varied as how the price of tangerines will be affected by carbon emission restrictions to the impact of development on coastal wetlands and climate change, Edwards and his wife Elizabeth "spoke the language," said Nathan Dias, executive director of the Cape Romain Bird Observatory.
John Ramsburgh, executive director of the S.C. League of Conservation Voters, who helped organize the discussion, thanked Edwards and said he was "impressed by his platform" on the environment.
After he sent the raucous Georgetown crowd away into the late afternoon heat, Edwards boarded a plane for Atlanta and a fund raiser.
But Edwards said the people in Georgetown and those like them remain with him.
"I love being in front of crowds like that," Edwards said. "I love carrying their hopes inside me."