Edwards playing up his small-town roots

Rob Christensen
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

RALEIGH, N.C. - Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards began Monday with a visit to his first mill-village home in South Carolina, later held a fundraiser at Ryman Auditorium, Nashville's country music shrine, and is scheduled to hang out later this week with actor Ben Jones, who played Cooter in the television series "The Dukes of Hazard."

Edwards may come across as more Southern preppy than country, but this week he is playing up his small-town roots as he makes a major pitch to capture the rural vote.

The former North Carolina senator on Monday unveiled $1 billion in spending initiatives in rural small businesses, education and health care as well as new restrictions on corporate agribusiness.

"Rural America has been ignored for too long," Edwards said in Nashville. "Across America, too many small towns have turned into ghost towns."

Edwards hopes to revive Democratic prospects in rural America. Bolstered by polls and midterm election results, Democrats think that for the first time in a decade, they can be increasingly competitive in the countryside, which has been long been a stronghold for President Bush.

"What we are going to say to rural America is `look around you,'" said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, Edwards' chief strategist on rural America. "You can leave Raleigh and drive to Des Moines, Iowa, and every small town you go through it looks like Sherman went through, except he didn't burn anything."

Country voters have voted Democratic in the past. They were an important component in Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. They helped elect Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton president. But starting in 1994, rural voters began voting Republican in ever-increasing numbers.

The reason, say Republicans, is simple. The GOP platform is in keeping with the conservative values of rural America.

"People vote on pocketbook and emotional issues," said Bob Davis, the Tennessee Republican Party chairman. "The kind of issues I'm talking about are tax cuts, making them permanent for the individual. The death taxes. The life of the unborn. Marriage is between a man and a woman. Second amendment rights. That is why Republicans have done well. We are all dead-on for all those issues."

"On all the issues I mentioned, he (Edwards) is wrong for Tennessee rural voters," Davis said.

Dee Davis, president of the nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesboro, Ky., said Democrats have written off rural America because they didn't think they could win, and Republicans have taken it for granted.

As a result, said Dee Davis, rural America has been largely ignored in national politics in recent years as presidential hopefuls have focused on the large population centers. About 20 percent of voters live in rural America, compared with 40 percent in urban and 40 percent in suburban parts of the country.

Rural areas lag behind most of the country on a broad array of statistics - poverty rates, education, income, growth, and health. Of the 250 poorest counties, 244 are rural.

But there are signs that rural America is becoming more of a political battleground, Dee Davis says.

During the midterm elections in November, the rural vote split 51 percent Republican and 48 percent Democrat, according to Democratic pollster Anna Greenberg of Washington, who last fall did a survey of rural voters. Just two years earlier, Republicans had a 19 percent advantage over Democrats.

The Democrats' rural revival was evident in western North Carolina, where Democrat Heath Shuler defeated GOP Rep. Charles Taylor and where Democrats did surprisingly well in legislative and local elections.

"We are finding in national polling, rural voters look very competitive," Greenburg said. "In the most recent survey, we had Democrats winning rural voters by a 52-42 percent margin."

"Clearly the war in Iraq is a huge part of this," Greenburg said. "But there are two other pieces to this. Rural areas are the most economically stressed areas of the country. There has also been a muting of the social issues."

Edwards has long emphasized his small-town rural roots. When he ran for the Senate in 1998, his TV ads were set in his boyhood home of Robbins, N.C., and not his adult home in Raleigh. Edwards did well among many Midwestern rural voters in Iowa and elsewhere, according to exit polls.

Edwards' courting of rural voters is also about primary politics. Rural voters make up 40 percent of the voters in three of the earliest Democratic contests - the caucuses in Iowa and the primaries in New Hampshire and South Carolina. The super primary day of Feb. 5 includes states with significant rural populations including Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

But Republicans point out that Edwards, a wealthy trial lawyer, has come a long way from his rural roots.

The GOP noted Edwards' multimillion-dollar home outside Chapel Hill, N.C., and cites news stories that say he doesn't hunt, fish, is not a big NASCAR fan and has an "anti-gun" voting record.






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