Politics & Government

Edwards' Southern style plays well in New Hampshire

HAMPTON, N.H. - As a general rule, politicians seeking votes in New England don't quote guys named Mudcat.

But here was John Edwards at a backyard house party in suburban New Hampshire, citing political consultant Dave "Mudcat" Saunders on why the No Child Left Behind Act hasn't made students any smarter.

"Children don't learn anything filling out a bubble on a cheap standardized test," he said. "As one of my friends down South likes to say, you don't make a hog fatter by weighing it."

There was a slight pause and a few scattered laughs from the crowd of about 130 people. Then, Edwards pulled out the real punch line.

"I'm never sure whether to use that line in New Hampshire," he said. "In North Carolina, they get it immediately."

At that, the group broke into a hearty laugh.

As he toured the Granite State earlier this month, the former North Carolina senator at times seemed to wear his Southern seasoning on his sleeves, making references to his childhood in Robbins, his views on segregation in Southern schools, and his win against the "Jesse Helms machine" in 1998.

It's part of a strategy aimed at stressing his potential strength in the so-called "red states" of the South in a general election, following in the footsteps of Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

But to get that chance, Edwards will first have to win over a state that doesn't consider "Yankee" a derogatory term - a place where Bill Clinton came in second in 1992 and Al Gore won only narrowly in 2000.

In 2004, New Hampshire arguably cost Edwards his shot at the Democratic nomination. After a surprisingly strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Edwards came into New Hampshire without a strong network of volunteers and supporters. His fourth-place finish cost him crucial momentum.

Edwards doesn't intend to make the same mistakes again.

His campaign has improved its ground game in New Hampshire. Edwards has 65 field organizers in the state - four times as many as he had on Election Day in 2004. He and his wife, Elizabeth, have also traveled there extensively.

Dean Lacy, a professor of government at Dartmouth College, said that Edwards' accessibility is one element of his Southern-style of politics that plays the best in New Hampshire.

"We have more of the personal style of campaigning that you see in Southern and more rural states that don't have huge media markets," Lacy said. "Edwards has done that better than the other Democratic candidates."

So far, though, it hasn't helped his campaign much.

Polls consistently show him in third place in New Hampshire, behind Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois. A Marist College poll of likely voters from earlier this month showed Clinton with 43 percent, followed by Obama at 21 percent and Edwards at 12 percent.

Longtime New Hampshire state Rep. Sharon Nordgren, who endorsed Edwards in 2004 and still supports him, said she doesn't care where a candidate comes from. But she said Edwards' Southern origins could play well in New England.

"I think it helps him as far as people worrying about electability," she said. "He appeals to a broader mass of people across the country. I don't think someone from New Hampshire could do that."

Not everyone is convinced.

Nell Wiener, a 23-year-old music teacher who lives in Keene, stopped by an Edwards rally even though she's already decided she'll vote for either Clinton or Obama. She said that Edwards' talk about free trade and economic disparity didn't ring true to her.

"I think he plays cheap politics," she said.

Saunders, the Virginia-based political consultant, said Edwards is running as a candidate who understands rural culture.

"It's not a Southern thing," he said. "It's a rural thing."

Edwards said he's running the same kind of campaign in New Hampshire as in Iowa and South Carolina, the sites of two other early contests.

"The one thing you learn from running in a national campaign is that you can't modify your approach," he said. "You have to do the same thing everywhere."

(Beckwith reports for the Raleigh News and Observer.)