Democrat John Edwards (search) is asking Southerners to contribute to his presidential campaign to show that the "Old South of Trent Lott (search) and Strom Thurmond (search) is in the past."

"I am certain you were just as angry as I was when Senator Trent Lott implied the country would be better off if Strom Thurmond's racist presidential race had prevailed," the North Carolina senator wrote in a fund-raising letter to potential Southern donors late last month. "It is no wonder the rest of America has such a stereotypical view of Southerners."

The South is among the battlegrounds for Edwards and the eight other Democratic presidential hopefuls. Not only is it crucial area for votes — early primary state South Carolina is a frequent campaign stop — but it is a source of campaign cash.

Southern money helped propel Edwards to the lead in the early race for campaign contributions. He raised $7.4 million in the first quarter of the year, including at least $2.5 million from Southern donors.

Edwards' fund-raising appeal went to prospective donors in Virginia and several other Southern states.

"You and I must show America that the Old South of Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond is in the past, and that the New South can produce true leaders who can unite and not divide," Edwards wrote.

Lott, a Republican from Mississippi, stepped down as Senate Majority Leader in December after saying at a 100th birthday party for former South Carolina Sen. Thurmond that Mississippians were proud to have supported his 1948 bid for president when he ran as a segregationist.

"And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either," Lott said at the time.

Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said Edwards thinks Lott's views are at odds with those of a majority of Southerners. Edwards "is extraordinarily proud of the progress the South has made on civil rights the past 40 years," Palmieri said.

The fund-raising appeal opens with a description of Edwards' blue-collar background, saying that the Democratic Party needs a candidate that comes from "real America."

"Unfortunately, George W. Bush and too many others in Washington come from a different place ... a place born of privilege," he wrote. "Although I built a life I never dreamed I would have, first as a successful attorney and now as a senator from North Carolina, I was not born well-to-do. My dad worked in a cotton mill. My mom labored at a number of jobs. ... I swept floors at the mill, cut grass, worked on a road crew, unloaded trucks at UPS, and worked at a mobile home factory."

The letter invites prospective donors to join Edwards' "Campaign Advisory Committee as an honorary charter member," promising periodic briefings on the campaign but assuring contributors that no meetings or formal duties are required.