FLORENCE, S.C. - At a rally on a college campus here fringed by cotton fields and studded with live oak trees, Sen. John Edwards is introduced to the crowd as "the next homeboy to become president of the United States."
Edwards is promoting his South Carolina roots in advance of Tuesday's primary, where his political fate - and quite possibly the course of the Democratic race - could be determined.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is leading in Arizona and Missouri, which have the most presidential delegates at stake Tuesday, and could put the nomination within his grasp if he sweeps all seven states that vote that day.
That is raising the stakes in the first Southern primary state, making this Carolina-New England showdown as important to presidential politics as the Super Bowl is to football.
Riding the crest of decisive victories in the opening round of voting, Kerry pulled to within striking distance of Edwards, according to several tracking polls late last week. Late polling suggested that his momentum had slowed, but the race was still a statistical dead heat.
If Edwards lost in this state, where he was born 50 years ago, it could eliminate perhaps the only challenger left with a realistic chance to defeat Kerry.
Winning South Carolina "would help Kerry put to bed some of the questions about his strength in the South, and it would be the end of Edwards," said Bill Carrick, a top strategist for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, who ended his campaign after losing in Iowa.
Edwards is counting on fellow Southerners to give his candidacy a lift, now that the campaign is entering the Deep South. The North Carolina senator has been so confident of winning this next-door state, where he has campaigned hard and spent heavily, that he called it a must-win for him, implying that he will end his candidacy if he loses this week.
And after a strong second place in Iowa's caucuses, Edwards pulled into the lead in South Carolina polls. Despite a disappointing fourth-place finish in frigid New Hampshire, he had every reason to believe that the Palmetto State would warm to his down-home appeal, enabling him to advance next week to contests in Tennessee and Virginia.
But to the surprise of the Edwards forces, Kerry hit South Carolina with the ferocity of the ice storm that staggered this region last week. Stopping Edwards here, say Kerry backers and others, would effectively make Kerry the presumptive nominee.
"That'd be it," said Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, the state's senior senator and a Kerry supporter, featured in a Kerry TV ad airing around the state.
Other rivals fading
Hollings isn't the only Democrat whose endorsement is being promoted aggressively in this state.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, targeting the first contest with a large African-American vote, is running radio ads featuring a testimonial from courtroom ace Johnny Cochran.
Wesley K. Clark is airing radio spots that feature an endorsement by Rep. Charles B. Rangel of New York.
The retired general has invested heavily in South Carolina - more than $1 million, according to Eli Segal, his campaign chairman - but doesn't seem to be catching up, and he moved on to campaign in Western states, with no plans of returning. His chances appear to be better in Oklahoma, another Tuesday primary state, where he is in a close race with Kerry and Edwards.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has all but disappeared from the South Carolina campaign, though he participated in last week's debate in Columbia, S.C.
Increasingly, South Carolina looks to be a two-man race between Edwards and Kerry, with the other candidates struggling to get out of single digits.
The dilemma for the large group of undecided voters: "When they start thinking about electability, they get to Kerry. But they like Edwards better," said Jim Quackenbush, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer and Democratic campaign veteran.
Kerry's Carolina comeback resembles his rebound elsewhere.
Last September, he chose Charleston, S.C., as the site to formally declare his national candidacy, using a decommissioned aircraft carrier as a backdrop. But his campaign was going nowhere until he emerged with an Iowa victory.
Jobs loom large
The milder breezes that greeted candidates in the Palmetto State last week weren't the only changes in the campaign here. South Carolina was hit with the highest employment losses in the nation last year. As a result, the issue of jobs and the continued flight of manufacturing jobs to foreign countries, expected to be a central theme of the Democratic campaign against President Bush in the fall, is gaining prominence.
Edwards likes to point out that the textile mill shut down in the town where he grew up. He has avoided attacking Kerry, while highlighting an implicit difference between his rural, working-class upbringing and Kerry's background as a Boston patrician married to one of the nation's wealthiest women.
"Voters in South Carolina should vote for me because, number one, I was born here. I understand what's going on their lives," Edwards says.
He doesn't mention his wealth, the product of a courtroom career as a plaintiff's attorney successful enough to finance his first political race in 1998 and leave millions more in the bank. Edwards, pressed on the issue at a candidate forum in Columbia, S.C., said he understands what it means for people to struggle paying their bills.
"I've had that in my own life," he said. "I will never forget where I came from, and you can take that to the bank."
Kerry supporters dismiss the notion that a northern liberal can't win in the South, at least in Democratic primaries. The defection of conservative whites, and many moderates, has made the region solidly Republican, but left the Democratic Party the preserve of African-Americans and a minority of whites.
"The idea that you wouldn't vote for a Yankee in the Deep South, that's mythology," said Alex Sanders, an unsuccessful 2002 Democratic Senate nominee in South Carolina and Kerry supporter. "Our gene pool is not as shallow as people popularly perceive us to be."
Hollings similarly rejects typecasting Kerry. "Don't give me all that stuff about 'liberal from Massachusetts,'" he said at a campaign event last week in the South Carolina capital, recalling Kerry's willingness to buck other Democrats in Washington and support a measure for reducing the federal budget deficit in the 1980s.
If Kerry succeeds in knocking Edwards from the race here, the reason may well be the endorsements of Hollings and Rep. James E. Clyburn, the state's only black congressman and a highly respected figure. His backing has boosted Kerry's chances among African-Americans, who are expected to cast at least two of every five votes in the primary.
"I don't think there are kingmakers any more. Clyburn's probably as close as they come," said Jim Guth, a Furman University political scientist.
Neal Thigpen, a political scientist at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., where Edwards addressed a crowd of several hundred on Friday, estimates that Kerry needs to carry about one-third of the black vote to defeat Edwards in the primary.
Interviews with voters and politicians in this state confirm that South Carolinians are acutely aware that their votes could eliminate the only candidate who sounds like them.
To counter that, Kerry's campaign has launched a whisper campaign, advising Democrats they can get "two-for-one" by voting for Kerry, who would then pick Edwards as his running mate, according to Thigpen, whose wife is a prominent local Democrat.
Edwards has disclaimed any interest in the vice presidency. After quick campaign stops yesterday in Missouri, New Mexico and Oklahoma, he was to return to South Carolina early today for the final two days of the primary race.
With Kerry's nomination drive gathering steam, Edwards may need a substantial victory on his native soil to remain viable. A narrow winning margin might be interpreted as a loss, especially if Kerry sweeps most or all the other states.
"Where I come from," Edwards countered, "if you win a basketball game 80 to 79, it counts."