NASHUA, N.H. – John Edwards (search) suggested Wednesday that presidential rivals Howard Dean and John Kerry would be a drag at the top of the Democratic ticket in key Southern congressional races, and said he could help "everywhere in the country."
"I know I can strengthen our position because I've won in a tough place, a really tough place," said Edwards, who won his North Carolina Senate seat in 1998 by defeating a Republican incumbent.
He has long looked to South Carolina, which holds a primary Feb. 3, for his first victory in the nominating campaign, and is vying for the support of Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's dominant black politician.
At the same time, a startlingly strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses gives him hope of springing yet another surprise on Tuesday in New Hampshire. The state holds the first-in-the-nation primary next door to Dean's Vermont and Kerry's Massachusetts.
Edwards, who speaks in southern cadences, told an audience in Greenville, S.C., that he is the candidate who can beat President Bush in every region of the country. He drew applause when he said the key to victory was "talking like this, in the south."
Hours later, at a small New England diner, he broadened that appeal when one voter asked how he could fulfill his legislative agenda with a GOP-controlled Congress.
Edwards responded by stressing the importance of increasing Democratic strength in Congress. He added that the key to that is prevailing in swing seats such as the one held by retiring Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, a conservative Democrat.
"The question is who on the top of the Democratic ticket can go every place in America and campaign with the candidates and strengthen their ability to get elected. And who will make it more difficult for them to get elected?" Edwards said.
"So if you're a Democrat running in a tight race ... in Georgia, do you want John Edwards campaigning with you? Do you want Howard Dean campaigning with you? Do you want John Kerry campaigning with you?
"I mean it gets to be a fairly basic question ... and I will let you make your own judgment."
Kerry, asked in a televised interview about Edwards' remarks, dismissed them.
"Well Max Cleland is on my side and I think will testify" that he can win in the South. "I look forward to campaigning in Georgia or in South Carolina and I think the team that I have down south there is terrific," he said.
Cleland is a triple amputee as a result of Vietnam War injuries. He served one term in the Senate before losing his seat to a Republican in 2002.
Clyburn, South Carolina's first black congressman since Reconstruction, had been supporting Rep. Richard Gephardt, who quit the race on Tuesday. Clyburn said Wednesday he has heard from nearly all the remaining contenders, but doesn't expect to endorse anyone until after the New Hampshire primary.
Edwards' remarks amounted to a glancing blow against his rivals, and he did not mention retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Arkansas native who -- like Kerry and Dean -- runs ahead of him in New Hampshire polling.
Still, by mentioning his two New England-based competitors by name, Edwards injected a new element into the electability debate-- expanding it beyond the race for the White House to include Congress.
Edwards has not run any negative television commercials and often tells audiences to look elsewhere if they want a candidate given to attacking or sniping at others.
An aide confirmed Thursday night, though, that the campaign had given its Iowa precinct captains written material in advance of the caucuses that contained unflattering characterizations of Edwards' rivals. It referred to Dean, for example, as "an elitist from Park Avenue in New York City," and said Kerry has been "part of the failed Washington politics for too long."
Edwards said he did not learn of the memo until Wednesday night.
"I take full responsibility for anything that happened in my campaign. I did not know this, it's wrong and I have given instructions for this not to ever happen again," he said in Portsmouth, N.H. "I condemn it. It should not have happened and it will not happen again."