COLUMBIA, S.C. - In a downtown restaurant and pool hall, John Edwards savored the taste of victory that he craved last night, served up by the voters of his native state.
"It's a long way from that little house in Seneca, South Carolina, to here tonight," the North Carolina senator said amid a raucous celebration at Jillian's, his voice hoarse from nonstop campaigning.
Edwards, a millionaire trial lawyer who frequently talks about how he rose from humble roots in a textile mill town, had called the Palmetto State a "must win."
With his victory in South Carolina, and a strong run in Oklahoma behind him, Edwards was looking ahead last night, telling the Associated Press shortly after he was projected as winning his first primary, "It's very easy to lay out the map to get us to the nomination."
He was due to take a midnight plane to Memphis for the next phase of his presidential quest. Besides visiting Tennessee, he planned to campaign in another southern state, Virginia. Both hold primaries Tuesday, with 151 delegates at stake.
Then, in an effort to show that he is more than a regional candidate, as the Kerry campaign was casting him last night, Edwards said he also intended to campaign in Michigan, the next stop on the campaign calendar.
But Edwards is barely a blip in the polls in the Midwestern state, which holds its primary Saturday and commands 128 delegates. He was the choice of just 6 percent of likely voters compared with 56 percent for Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, according to a poll of 300 voters conducted for the Detroit News on Sunday and Monday. The poll had an error rate of plus or minus 5.7 percent.
Despite the daunting task ahead of him, Edwards proclaimed his win in his native state "a night of extraordinary celebration of a great victory" before launching into his familiar stump speech about two Americas, one for the rich and privileged, the other for everyone else. Speaking of the 35 million Americans living in poverty, he vowed to cheers, "We will lift them up."
While Kerry stumped in all seven states holding primaries and caucuses last night, Edwards focused almost all of his attention on South Carolina, which he left as a child when his father moved to North Carolina to work at another mill.
On the eve of the election, his parents in tow, he made a pilgrimage back to his hometown in the northwest corner of the state where the humble house he lived in still stands. The house also played a starring role in his campaign ads.
The personal appeal to South Carolinians to elect someone who shared their experiences and talked with the same distinctive accent paid dividends.
Exit polls showed that Edwards won half of the white vote and a narrow majority of black voters over Kerry, who had the endorsement of the state's most powerful African-American politician, Rep. James E. Clyburn, and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings.
But after a debate in Greenville on Thursday night, Kerry left the state, conceding the battleground to the native son, who last night claimed the victory not only for himself but also for the working class he seeks to represent. "Tonight," he said to cheers, "the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of tearing people down."