ATLANTA – John Edwards (search) bills himself as the only Democrat who can beat President Bush in the South but he has won only one state in the region so far, South Carolina, the state of his birth.
A distant second to John Kerry (search) in the Democratic race, Edwards lost Tennessee and Virginia. He is now looking to Georgia, along with Ohio and New York, in the Super Tuesday primaries March 2 to keep his campaign afloat.
"He needs to defeat Kerry in Georgia, otherwise the rationale for his campaign collapses," Emory University political science professor Merle Black said.
Buoyed by a better-than-expected second-place finish in Wisconsin, Edwards wasted little time in launching his Georgia campaign but steered clear of calling the state one he must win.
For both men, the black vote is key. It accounted for 48.3 percent of the ballots cast in the 2000 Democratic presidential primary.
One of the state's most important black political figures, Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, said it's too soon to say where the black vote will go but added that he is backing Kerry.
"I think he has the momentum as the front-runner," said Smyre, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. "I think at some juncture we're going to have to get down to a nominee so our message can be clearer."
Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights struggle, also is backing Kerry in Georgia, as are Reps. Denise Majette and Sanford Bishop.
But there is that question of accent.
Edwards "talks like us," said Chip Carter, son of former President Carter and a Howard Dean supporter until the former Vermont governor quit the race. "Dean people are going to go with Edwards because he's got the best chance of winning."
Steve Anthony, a former executive director of the Georgia Democratic Party who teaches political science at Georgia State University, said the regional connection theoretically gives Edwards an edge.
If Kerry wins Georgia, "it will just be because of the momentum factor," Anthony said. "I just don't think he has the ability to relate as well to people here."
Richard Ray, the spokesman for organized labor in Georgia as state president of the AFL-CIO, said he likes Edwards and believes he will do fairly well in the state. But his organization will do all it can to turn out its 200,000 members for Kerry.
"Looking ahead, unless something really blows up, John Kerry will be the nominee," Ray said.
Factors unrelated to the Kerry and Edwards campaigns may have some affect on the election, but no one is certain just how much.
There is no party registration in Georgia. Some fear crossover Republicans may try to sway the outcome. Bush is unopposed on the ballot for the GOP nomination.
"There is a little room for mischief," said Cleland, who said exit polls suggest Republicans have tried to throw elections in other states to Edwards. "Now that we come to an open primary in Georgia, I don't know what will happen."
Ray, who also serves on the Democratic National Committee, expects some GOP voting for Democrats but doesn't expect it to be widespread. "I don't think there's a master plan for that," he said.
For the first time, Georgia voters will have six days, not just one, to cast their ballots in the primary. Early voting started at election offices across the state Monday and will end Friday. Experts aren't sure how it might affect the contest.
Another factor is a referendum that will decide which of two flags should represent Georgia. One was created by Barnes, the former governor. The other is identified with Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who defeated Barnes.
Neither shows the battle flag of the Confederacy, the rebel "X" which has come to symbolize racial bigotry. That old symbol was added to the state flag in 1956. Barnes hauled it down in 2001 and was defeated the following year, in part because of opposition from heritage groups.
"This injects a state issue that is powerful, that is emotional, that has left a lot of scars and bodies on the trail," Cleland said. "Lord only knows what that's going to do to the psyche of the Georgia voter on March 2."