Edwards: South vote is vital
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards waves to the crowd as he leaves the Station Diner in Anderson, S.C., Monday, April 16, 2007. (AP Photo/Emily Horos)
John Edwards (D)
Former Senator, NC
Born: 06/10/1953
Birthplace: Seneca, SC
Home: Raleigh, NC
Religion: Methodist
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Presidential candidate John Edwards said Monday that he is the strongest general election candidate in the Democratic field because he's won in the South and his chief rivals have not been tested there.

Edwards said that's true of Democratic primary opponents Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, but it also applies to the leading Republican candidates — former New York city Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

"I think I have the strongest chance of changing the electoral map," Edwards said in an interview with The Associated Press. "If Senator McCain or Mayor Giuliani or Governor Romney, if one of them is the nominee, I think we have a great chance to win, not just Ohio, but to win some Southern states.

"I think in the case of most of the other (Democratic) candidates, they're just not tested in that regard," said the former North Carolina senator.

President Bush swept the Southeast states in 2004, even though Edwards was the 2004 vice presidential nominee and campaigned in the South. Asked how he could improve that record next year, Edwards responded: "Be the nominee." He ruled out being a running mate again. "Absolutely not," Edwards said with a vigorous shake of his head. "I'm finished with that."

He declined to talk about why 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry wasn't successful.

"I think that it's very frustrating to people like me, but President Bush was a strong Southern candidate," Edwards said.

"I think I am the strongest general election candidate," he said. "I think the imperical evidence will bear that out — if you look at the polls, me against Republicans."

Edwards was using his Southern roots to distinguish himself in a tough primary competition with Clinton and Obama, who are getting more attention in the race but face questions about whether they could appeal nationwide. He visited his birthplace in Seneca, S.C., on Monday then flew to Nashville where he lived after graduating law school.

Edwards was raised in North Carolina and represented the state for one term in the Senate. He said it's not a coincidence that the last three Democratic presidents — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson — were from the South and could make a "cultural connection" with voters there.

"The voters of the South have to think that you understand their lives," he said in his North Carolina drawl during a flight between South Carolina and Tennessee. "Some of it is the way you talk about issues, obviously it helps if you have a Southern accent. If you're like me and you grew up going to and playing Friday night football, going to church on Sunday morning and Sunday night and Wednesday night, then they feel a connection to that."

Edwards announced a plan to boost rural economies, adding it to his growing list of liberal policy proposals, which also includes a withdrawal of forces from Iraq, universal health care and a repeal of some of President Bush's tax cuts to pay for it.

Some of his positions put him to the left of Southern conservative voters, so Edwards was trying to woo them by focusing on his common roots and promising to make rural America a priority.

The Republican National Committee called Edwards a "counterfeit country boy," questioning whether he could connect to rural voters. The RNC argued that Edwards promotes liberal policies and lives in a mansion with indoor squash courts.

Edwards said if he becomes the Democratic nominee, he thinks he could possibly win several states in the South that Bush won in the last campaign — Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia and Kentucky.

"Alabama and Mississippi are tough — not impossible, but tough," Edwards said. "South Carolina is tough, not impossible for me because I was born there."

He's also looking to pick up votes in the rural states that will play an important role in the Democratic primary. States that plan to hold elections on the super primary day of Feb. 5, 2008, include Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Upon arriving in Nashville, Edwards learned about the shooting at Virginia Tech that led to the deaths of 22 people, including the gunman. He continued to a news conference at the Nashville Farmers Market, and opened by offering his prayers for those killed. "God bless them, and it's a terrible tragedy in America," he said.

The campaign decided to continue the Monday evening bluegrass concert headlined by Del McCoury and Rodney Crowell at the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry, but changed it from a foot-stomping political rally to a more somber community service.

Edwards supports gun control measures such as background checks at gun shows, but stressed his support of gun ownership rights in his rural America plan. In the interview with the AP, Edwards said he grew up hunting deer, rabbits and birds, but doesn't hunt any longer. "I think it's important for us to respect the right to own firearms and to use them for protection," he said. "I don't think, though, that it means anybody needs an AK-47 to hunt."

He also said he's comfortable talking about his faith on the campaign trail, and that could help him connect to Southern voters. He said he prays every day, and his faith helped get him through the death of his son and his wife's cancer diagnoses.

But, he said, "my faith beliefs should not be imposed on the country in policy. I think that's why separation of church and state matters. Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion, though. I think it's perfectly fine for me to talk about my faith and my trust in the Lord."