Edwards's 'Grown Up' Appeal

COLUMBIA, S.C.--Nancy Sharpe is regretting her decision. A registered Republican, Sharpe, 76, went to the polls last Saturday and did what a plurality of South Carolina Republican primary voters did: cast her ballot for John McCain. "I thought he'd be best qualified to lead our country in a time of war," she says.

But when I saw Sharpe cheering today at a John Edwards Voter Empowerment Town Hall here in Columbia, she sighed and said that she'd had a change of heart. Her fondness for Edwards, a South Carolina native, was nothing new. Like the former senator, Sharpe's parents both worked in cotton mills--"Pa" from the age of six, when he started as a sweeper, and "Mama" from the age of twelve, when her adopted father passed away and she decided "to give back." "Edwards still remembers," she says. "A lot of people who worked in the cotton mills are still around, 'cause it wasn't too long ago that they closed 'em here in Columbia. I relate to Edwards, his parents and what they're saying. He'd be a president of the people."

But that wasn't enough, I asked, for her to wait and vote Democratic?  "Well, Edwards got better this past week," Sharpe said. "What it was, I don't know. I think he was so mature when Hillary and Obama was fightin'. He stood back and said, 'How silly.'"

Edwards has spent the four days since Monday's vicious debate making the exact same point--and if it's winning over a Republican like Sharpe, it's probably winning over some Democrats, too. "I'm proud to be part of the 'grown-up' wing of the party," he told today's crowd, even though most of them were students; it's also the theme of his new ad (above). "This is the New York and Chicago-style politics of personal attacks and trying to tear people down. South Carolina deserves better than that." Edwards may have spent the weeks leading up to Iowa relentlessly slamming Clinton, but now he's hoping an old political rule holds true: if two rivals are exchanging blows, it's always the third man who benefits. The latest polls show signs of life. On Thursday, Clemson found Edwards in a statistical tie with Clinton for second place (17-20) among past South Carolina Democratic primary voters, and SurveyUSA has him up seven points from last week, to 22 percent--with the New York Senator down seven to 29.

Edwards won't catch Obama, who typically laps him by 20 points. But Hillary has largely ceded Saturday's contest to the Illinois senator, spending much of the week stumping and fundraising in Super Tuesday states. Today, Edwards hammered the former First Lady for "jetting in for a campaign event and flying back" and reminded listeners that he's "from here and understands [their] concerns." "When somebody is turning their back on South Carolina the week before the primary, what do you think will happen after they're elected president?" he asked. It's a good question. If enough of the sizable segment of Democrats who are still undecided break--like Sharpe--for the guy who "relates," expect the unexpected on Saturday night.