NEW YORK – When John Edwards (search) was running for president, many observers thought he could wrap up the Southern vote because of his Carolina roots.
But in the end, Edwards only managed to win South Carolina before he dropped out of the running. So now, pundits are debating just how much the North Carolina senator can do for John Kerry in winning the South in the general election against President Bush in November.
Sidney Blumenthal, once an adviser to former President Bill Clinton (search), said he's heard from "scores of Democrats who are very excited about this ticket," not least of which are for reasons of geography.
"John Edwards represents the unity of the Democratic Party that is not at all conceding the South," Blumenthal said. "Not only will Edwards help in the Midwest and the entire Ohio River Valley — which will be the battleground in this election — but [he will] put peripheral Southern states into play."
"The notion he's from the South — he's not going to give [Kerry] any Southern votes. He's not even going to give them South Carolina," said Ed Rogers, a former presidential aid to George H.W. Bush (search), referring to Edwards' birthplace. Rogers added that Edwards cannot stack up to Vice President Dick Cheney (search) on the important election-year issue of security and foreign policy.
Edwards now represents districts in North Carolina, but is a native of Seneca, S.C., which is said to have helped him clinch the Palmetto State in the Democratic primaries. His upbringing in tiny mill towns in both North and South Carolina, combined with rhetorical skills, seemed to help his showing in other states like Iowa and Wisconsin.
Edwards is considered a more moderate Southern Democrat compared to Kerry's Northeastern liberal persona. On the campaign trail, he did a particularly good job wooing independents and moderate-leaning Democrats. Before dropping out of the race, he was second behind Kerry in the delegate count. The next-closest competitor was former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search), who was still about 357 delegates behind the rookie senator.
Former adviser to Al Gore (search) Michael Feldman noted that Edwards has a "real appeal" in the South and among independent and swing voters.
"This opens up a whole new front in the South but even more broadly than that, this opens up a whole lot more states into play," Feldman said. "I think Republicans pushed the panic button today … it's going to be a close election."
"What John Edwards will bring is an energy that surpasses that of the Democratic Party right now," said Richard Goodstein, a former campaign adviser to Gore. Goodstein said Edwards should be able to talk up Kerry in important swing states like Ohio, Missouri and Florida with the "compassion and conviction" he's known for.
Steve Ricchetti, former deputy chief of staff for Clinton, said Edwards — and the combination of a Southerner-Northeasterner ticket — could help Kerry even in the Midwest.
"I'm from Ohio and I can tell you the choice of Senator Edwards will be very, very popular in Ohio and Michigan," Ricchetti said.
Former President Clinton even noted Edwards' geographical influence: "I like John Edwards a lot and I think he'll bring a lot to the ticket. It will help him [Kerry] in places like Arkansas where I'm from."
Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed said "most Democrats feel like we've won the lottery. We've now got our dream team" in Kerry and Edwards, a Vietnam hero and son of a mill worker, respectively.
"I think that's going to make a big difference in swing states like Ohio, where we have a chance to run against this administration's lousy record on the economy."
But those factors may not help much, given recent political history.
In the 2000 presidential elections, the entire South was in the red, meaning the GOP swept that region. In 1996, when Republican Sen. Bob Dole (search) was pitted against the incumbent Clinton in the race for the White House, Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi still went Republican. In 1992 when then-newcomer Clinton ran against then-President Bush, those same states — except for Georgia — also swayed to the right.
Prior to that, Republicans swept nearly the entire nation during the elections of 1980, 1984 and 1988.
President Bush himself remained undeterred about his ability to win the South.
"I'm gonna carry the South because the people understand that we share values," Bush told reporters in North Carolina on Wednesday. "They understand, they know me well and I believe that I did well in the South last time, I'll do well in the South this time because the senator from Massachusetts doesn't share their values and that's the difference."
Republicans say when it comes down to the wire, the choice will be between Kerry and Bush and not an issue of who's the favorite of the South, particularly when the Southerner is a vice presidential hopeful.
"John Edwards is a fine fellow but he didn't win any states" except his own in the Democratic primaries, said GOP strategist Ron Kaufman. "He'll do as well for Kerry as he did for himself, I think, in the end."
Fred Barnes, co-host of FOX News' "The Beltway Boys," said although Edwards won't necessarily win Kerry a state, "he makes for a more exciting ticket … I think Kerry and other Democrats think he has great potential."
But "this isn't necessarily going to give him a state -- that's one reason you pick a running mate. [Kerry and Edwards] may win North Carolina but I doubt it."
Barnes said that Kerry should have chosen Missouri Democrat Dick Gephardt (search), the former House party leader who dropped out of the presidential running during the primary season after a poor showing in Iowa, since the Midwesterner could have helped Kerry win at least Missouri.
But, Barnes continued: "The first thing you want to do is no harm. I don't think Kerry has done any harm in this."