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Edwards's Appeal Overshadowed by Rivals' Celebrity

Presidential candidate John Edwards encouraged supporters to look ahead to the February 5th primaries, which will determine millions of votes. Video by AP, Editor Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

In a quiet moment of an otherwise-fiery Democratic debate Monday, Barack Obama reflected on the frenzy sparked by seemingly every one of his and Hillary Rodham Clinton's utterances.

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"I'm not entirely faulting the media," Obama offered. "There's no doubt that in a race where you've got an African American and a woman," then, after an uncomfortable pause, he continued, "and John . . ."

The camera flashed to former senator John Edwards, smiling bashfully amid a chorus of audience laughter, the white man on a presidential stage that until this year was dominated by white men.

"Who could have imagined 20 years ago, 15 years ago, the white guy in the race would be the afterthought?" presidential historian Robert Dallek asked last night. "It's amazing."

The debate moment crystallized the problem faced by the man who was the Democratic Party's vice presidential nominee four years ago, a problem reflected boldly last night in his third-place finish in the state of his birth. Edwards is simply not breaking through.

"He is a terrific candidate, the most gifted athlete on the field, but there's just not room," said one Edwards aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be frank. "It's been very difficult to overcome the celebrity of the other two."

Although Edwards has been running practically since his 2004 loss, his performance as the vice presidential nominee may be proving a major impediment. In the past, White House candidates have been offered second, even third chances. But since Richard Nixon, no one on a national ticket has lost and come back to win.

"Once you lose, the image is of the loser," Dallek said. "With the media today, it's so difficult to overcome that now, especially at a time like this, when there is a real thirst for a departure from the recent past."

Since Edwards's second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses last month, he has ended up a distant third in New Hampshire, Nevada (where he pulled less than 4 percent) and now South Carolina. He won one county yesterday -- the one in which he was born.

If Edwards could have made a move, it would have been in South Carolina, where he won the primary four years ago and where the son of a millworker could appeal to millworkers, former millworkers and descendants of millworkers just like him.

As Edwards campaigned for the nomination four years ago, he spoke poignantly of two Americas: one for the rich and well-connected and one for the struggling. This year, poignancy turned to anger as his message on inequality took on a harder edge.

It was not as though his appeal did not resonate. Edwards and Clinton split the white vote about evenly, both winning about four in 10 votes to Obama's 24 percent. Edwards easily outdistanced Clinton and Obama among white men, winning 45 percent to Clinton's 28 percent and Obama's 27 percent, according to exit polls. But Edwards picked up only 2 percent of African American votes, well behind even Clinton's 19 percent.

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