The John Edwards “surge” has been the Loch Ness Monster of this primary campaign. There have been unconfirmed sightings of this elusive creature in the closing days of Iowa, New Hampshire and even (to a small degree) in Nevada, where he actually ended up getting just four percent of the vote. Now, based on a couple of polls that show Edwards within striking distance of second place in South Carolina, some people are saying they see the surge for real. Today, the lead sentence of a story in The State, the daily newspaper in Columbia (regrettably the article is nowhere to be found online): “Watch John Edwards.”
This morning, Edwards cited the surge rumors at a rally held in a crammed convention center conference room in Columbia. He told his audience, mostly college students, that he saw an “opportunity for a surprise” tomorrow. Edwards was energetic and impressive, emphasizing issues that were of interest to his young audience—many of whom wore t-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “I Vote For Darfur”—while taking care to strike notes that were also palatable to social conservatives, whom he’s clearly hoping to court in this devoutly religious state. When one young woman asked about threats to Roe v. Wade, Edwards only fleetingly reiterated his support for a woman’s right to choose, before going into a long and eloquent speech about the “need to be very inclusive and respectful” of those who oppose abortion. “There are very good people who have a different view about this,” he said. “Nobody made me God.”
That led Edwards into his central argument here in South Carolina, and elsewhere, which is that he is “a candidate who can win and compete in places like South Carolina and North Carolina.” It’s an odd balance he’s trying to strike. He is simultaneously running as the authentic liberal in the race and, tacitly, as the candidate who will be least likely to offend hidden prejudices. The implication, I think, is supposed to be, “Hey, you might not be a racist or a sexist, but a lot of other people are, and don’t you want to win?”
At the end of the program, Edwards took questions from the audience. The final one was from Johnnye Britt, a 72-year-old African American woman.
“I was born in Alabama, I lived under George Wallace and Bull Connor and my parents couldn’t vote. I can vote now and I do vote,” Britt told the candidate. “But it seems like segregation, especially in our public schools, is rearing its ugly head.”
Britt held up a paperback copy of book called Two Nations: Black, White, Separate, Hostile and Unequal. “I plan to vote for you,” she said. “I don’t care what color you are. I want to know that you’re going to allow these children to have the opportunity for an equal and excellent education.”
Edwards thanked Britt for her vote. “You have put your finger directly on a huge problem in this country,” he told her. “We have two public school systems. We have one for poor kids and one for everybody else. And whether it’s in the inner city or out in the poor rural areas, it’s not right. If we actually believe what I said earlier, that the men and women who work in the mill are worth as much as the man who owns the mill, and that every child in this country, black, white, Latino, wherever they live, wherever their family is, deserves the same opportunity, then we have work to do. And I’m prepared to do it.”
Part of me thinks that this moment was a missed opportunity for Edwards, that he might have used Britt’s moving testimony to decry the nasty racial politics that have overtaken this campaign. Instead, Edwards did something that’s been almost unthinkable in Democratic politics this week—he looked past identity and talked about class. The fact is that in a color-blind and gender-neutral world, Edwards’ message of economic populism would be perfectly tailored to resonate with lower-income people of all races and sexes. But this week, in this state, everything is black and white, and that’s why there’s unlikely to be any surprises in store for Edwards tomorrow.