Sen. John Edwards (search), a southerner who has acknowledged that South Carolina is a must-win state for him, swept through three states outside the region on Saturday in hopes of building new support in the next burst of delegate-selection contests.

The North Carolina Democrat campaigned in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Missouri before heading back to South Carolina.

Joined by his wife Elizabeth, Edwards addressed a crowd of several hundred in the refurbished Uptown Theater.

It was Edward's second visit to Missouri since Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) of St. Louis dropped out of the race last week.

"I'm so ready for a shot at George Bush. If you give me a shot at George Bush, I'll give you the White House," Edwards said to loud cheers.

Earlier, he was saluted by a mariachi band and cheered by several hundred enthusiastic supporters at a community center in Albuquerque, N.M. and unabashedly proclaimed: "This is the guy who can beat George Bush everywhere in America."

Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson (search), who has not yet endorsed a candidate but who accompanied Edwards Saturday, said, "Of all the presidential candidates, this candidate has made the most visits to our state."

Said Edwards: "People in this room are why I'm running for president." He argued that Bush "has no idea of what's going on in the real world."

A member of the audience asked Edwards what he would do about the tens of thousands of native Americans who live in poverty.

"It means bringing jobs to areas where they are so desperately needed," he said. Edwards also said he would work to help improve public schools and health care.

Asked his position on gay marriage, the senator said, "Bush wants to have a constitutional amendment (against gay marriages.) I'm dead against a constitutional amendment. I think that's wrong."

"There is a lot of significant progress that can be made in this area," he said, citing liberalization of various laws, including adoption, military and health care policies, that Edwards said discriminate against homosexual couples.

Conserving resources, Edwards was not campaigning or running ads in three Feb. 3 states — Arizona, North Dakota and Delaware — where support is thin. His strategists were buoyed by polls showing that Kerry was no longer gaining on Edwards in South Carolina.

Edwards hopes to be able to survive Tuesday's round of primaries to position himself to campaign in the two Southern states that hold primaries Feb. 10: Virginia and Tennessee. Edwards is running ads in both of those states and had tentative plans to campaign there next week.

While a win in South Carolina is a must for Edwards, his campaign also could be doomed if Kerry stormed the other Feb. 3 states, his advisers suggested privately.

However, should Edwards win in any other state, or should another candidate beat Kerry somewhere — Wesley Clark (search), for instance, appeared to have strong support in New Mexico — that would probably be enough to keep Edwards in the race until at least the Feb. 10 primaries.

Edwards was rushing through three states — New Mexico, Oklahoma, Missouri — so he could return to South Carolina by late Saturday and keep a commitment he made last Thursday when he promised to campaign in South Carolina every day through the primary election.

In Oklahoma City, Edwards spoke at a union hall, vowing that if elected he would "stand up against agreements like NAFTA that have been so devastating. We know very well what free trade is, how about fair trade?"

Noting that his mother was a retired member of the letter carriers union, Edwards told Local 344 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union that "we should be proud of what union men and women do in this country."

Increasingly, Edwards has been trying to draw a difference between himself and Kerry without mentioning the front-runner by name, and trade is one of those areas. Kerry has supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (search) (NAFTA) and other trade liberalization measures.

Organized labor contends such agreements have contributed to a loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs.

It's a major issue in South Carolina, whose textile industry has been battered. The state lost more jobs in 2003 than any other state. Edwards has been running ads in South Carolina emphasizing his local roots and promising to restore or replace lost textile jobs.