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Message From Third Place

John Edwards campaigning at the University of South Carolina in Lancaster on Wednesday.
John Edwards campaigning at the University of South Carolina in Lancaster on Wednesday. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, January 25, 2008

LANCASTER, S.C. -- Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys took the stage at a rally for John Edwards here Wednesday, and out of a clear sky it started raining metaphors.

Stanley, who turns 81 next month, is the country music legend -- I'm talking authentic country music, not the formulaic schmaltz manufactured these days in Nashville -- whose work was introduced to a wider audience by the film "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" If you remember the movie, you may remember two songs in particular, and Stanley performed both of them for the candidate who needs to win the Democratic primary here Saturday but almost surely won't.

First, he sang "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow," about a gentleman who's seen trouble all his days. Then Stanley dismissed the band and gave a haunting, a cappella performance of "O Death," a dirgelike lament whose title is self-explanatory. They don't make metaphors any more obvious.

But when Edwards made his choreographed entrance -- bounding in from the back of the hall and coming down through the audience, shaking hands all the way and flashing his movie-star smile for the cameras -- he looked neither dead nor sorrowful. Of the three candidates leading the race for the Democratic nomination, Edwards is the most consistent performer at campaign events. He never seems tired or preoccupied, never has the wrung-out look of someone who has been riding a bus all day. He always dazzles when he enters the room.

Still, Edwards is in third place. He was born in South Carolina, not far from this mill town, and if he finishes third in the primary here on Saturday, it's hard to imagine how he keeps pace with the better-financed front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

"I am the underdog," he told the crowd, in a part of his stump speech that's new since I last heard it in Iowa. "I don't have $100 million like the other candidates. . . . And I don't stand at the debates and have petty arguments."

Since Obama and Clinton smacked each other around at Monday's debate, Edwards has been running as the mature adult in the race. "I was proud to be there representing the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party," he said at the rally, to warm applause. "I realize that this is not about us personally."

Gil Small, the chairman of the Lancaster County Democratic Party, was wearing an Edwards button at the rally. He said he thought the debate had "helped him a lot," but he wouldn't venture any bold predictions. Hopeful is probably the best description of the local campaign's mood.

Former congressman Ben Jones, who played Cooter on TV's "The Dukes of Hazzard," was the emcee for the event, and much of his warm-up monologue was about how the media keep forgetting that there are three major candidates in the race, not two. Truth be told, he has a point. Edwards has a coherent, consistent message and is running a top-shelf campaign. He has beaten his rivals to the punch on several issues, and he's the most skilled debater of the bunch. The problem is that Clinton and Obama aren't candidates so much as phenomenons. They take up so much space that it's impossible to see the other guy.

Such is politics. But every time I go to an Edwards rally, I come away feeling disheartened -- not for Edwards, but for the people whose disappointment and disaffection he captures in his cadenced rhetoric about taking back the country from "special interests" holding it for ransom. Dismissing him as a born-again "populist" ignores the fact that Edwards has touched a nerve, especially in small towns and rural areas where, for the unskilled or the unlucky, "the economy" basically means Wal-Mart.

"You have been ignored too long," Edwards told the people in Lancaster. And he's right.

In campaign appearances and television ads, Edwards cites an aging CNN poll (it was published Dec. 11) showing that he would defeat any of the top four Republican opponents in the fall. Maybe, but how does he get to the fall? Given the power of the Obama and Clinton juggernauts, how does he even stick around long enough to be there if they falter?

For a while, it looked as if his strategy was to team up with Obama to knock Clinton off her stride. But during the last debate, he joined Clinton against Obama -- and then met privately with Clinton afterward.

I asked him what they had discussed. "We talked about how the media isn't giving me enough coverage," he said with a smile.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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