SENECA, S.C.—There’s a traveling variety show traversing rural South Carolina right now, featuring Danny Glover of Angels in the Outfield , former Rep. Ben “Cooter” Jones of Dukes of Hazzard fame, Madeleine Stowe of Last of the Mohicans , and bluegrass superstars Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Oh, and some guy named John Edwards.
A big theme of Edwards’ campaign this week has been the media’s neglect. Against his “two glitzy opponents,” he gripes, his message of corporate greed and middle-class struggle doesn’t merit much attention. “When they take a good man like John Edwards … and remove him from the story, it is wrong!” Jones railed today. (Never mind that Edwards appeared on David Letterman’s and Tyra Banks’ shows this week.) So, he’s pulling out all the stops for what could be his last grass-roots bus tour.
At a community center here in Edwards’ hometown, Jones warms up the crowd with a good 20 minutes of jokes, political opinions, and Dukes of Hazzard anecdotes. Wearing a yellow hat with the words Cooter’s Garage in bright red, Jones reminds everyone that Edwards, unlike some people we won’t name, is no phony: “John Edwards is like that, ‘cause he comes from y’all. That’s the way y’all are.”
What I’m seeing is identity politics taken to the extreme. Edwards isn’t just like these people. He is of them. Seneca is his. Never mind that Edwards has a jillion in the bank and a 28,000 square-foot house . This is a home game, with a crowd to match. As one supporter put it to me, “In Seneca, either you’re voting for Edwards, or you’re a Republican.”
Still, the senator fires off a few shots. He chides candidates (ahem) who “jet in, hold a political event, and jet out. … If they’re not willing to be here the week before the South Carolina primary, what are the chances they’ll be here after the South Carolina primary?” He derides the “bickering” that occurred at the Democratic debate Monday, joking that “I represent the grown-up wing of the Democratic party.”
But for all his fire, you can tell this is the beginning of the end. (Here’s that dastardly media bias creeping in.) Edwards will likely stick it out through Feb. 5. Heck, he might push into the summer. But retail politics is his specialty, and South Carolina ends the slew of primaries that can be won by shaking hands. From here on out, it’s a cocktail of momentum, advertising, and free media that decides the races. And Edwards is right that on that last count—not to mention the first two—his opponents have him beat.
As Edwards prepared to come onstage tonight, the room suddenly went quiet as Dr. Stanley sang his haunting a cappella rendition of “O Death” (the version made famous by the O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack). “Ooooo Death, Ooooo Death,” he crooned, as if he staring down the reaper himself. “Won’t you spare me over for another year?” Not exactly the kind of ditty you want on the campaign trail.