COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA –– WHEN PEOPLE IMAGINE the typical John Edwards supporter, they probably imagine someone like Phil Phunn. As recently as January, Phunn was a Howard Dean man. But then one day last month Phunn wandered into an Edwards event in Iowa and heard the North Carolina senator deliver his now-famous stump speech. He was sold on the spot. “I just identified with him,” Phunn recalls. “We’re the same age, we’ve been through the same things, he just spoke to me in a way that Dean didn’t—and that was before the scream.” Phunn’s conversion was sudden—and life-changing, to a degree. A salesman for a political-button company in Florida, Phunn had driven to Iowa to peddle Dean paraphernalia. But, after seeing Edwards, Phunn swapped inventory with the button salesman originally assigned to the North Carolina senator. For the rest of his time in Iowa, and then in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Phunn hawked Edwards buttons at campaign events.
On the day before the South Carolina primary, Phunn was trying to make a few sales at an Edwards rally here at Allen University, a historically black college on the edge of downtown. He wasn’t having much luck. It was the fifth Edwards event Phunn had been to in the state, and he had just made his first sale. Phunn shook his head at the easel carrying rows of unsold buttons, some with Edwards in front of the White House, others with his face adorning Mount Rushmore. “I don’t know why sales are so slow,” he said. “There have been lots of students and other people on fixed incomes at the rallies, so maybe they just can’t afford them.” But, at $4 for one button and $10 for four, even Phunn seemed to recognize the improbability of his theory.
The more likely explanation for Phunn’s sluggish sales is that his passion for Edwards actually makes him an atypical supporter. Edwards is running as an outsider—especially now that he’s trying to cast himself as an alternative to front-runner John Kerry—and, from a distance, pundits have all but christened him the most compelling candidate in the race. “Is it just a matter of you getting around the country and having everyone hearing you that stands in your way now?” a clearly smitten Chris Matthews asked Edwards on “Hardball” Tuesday night. But, up close, Edwards’s presidential bid doesn’t feel like an outsider’s campaign. Unlike other outsider candidates, like the freewheeling Howard Dean or the straight-talking John McCain, Edwards is a remarkably disciplined, on-message politician. And, unlike the Dean and McCain campaigns, both of which became crusades for their respective parties’ souls, Edwards isn’t articulating an ideological vision very different from those of the other Democratic candidates. Which is probably why the people in closest proximity to the Edwards campaign, from its supporters to its traveling press corps, tend not to be as passionate about the candidate as those who surrounded McCain in 2000 or Dean this election. But, as Edwards’s victory here in South Carolina and his second-place finish in Oklahoma on Tuesday attest—and as the vanquished McCain and the tottering Dean can certainly confirm—sometimes passion is overrated.
IT’S PROBABLY INEVITABLE that any presidential campaign, experienced day after day, would begin to seem monotonous. But, as Edwards barnstormed across South Carolina this past week in an all-or-nothing bid to win that state’s primary, his campaign, far from resembling a no-holds-barred crusade, felt more like a highly regimented slog. Each day, Edwards would do at least three events––logging more than 650 miles on his campaign bus as he traveled all over the state—and each event would be virtually identical.
Edwards would enter the social hall or restaurant or gymnasium to the strains of John Mellencamp’s “Small Town,” and, after making his way through an aisle of sign-toting supporters—whose locations had been carefully choreographed by his campaign’s advance staff—the candidate would thrust his hands into the air, giving a double thumbs-up, and flash a broad smile. Then Edwards, his voice becoming progressively more hoarse as he fought a losing battle with bronchitis, would deliver a five-to ten-minute version of his rightfully celebrated stump speech. He’d tell the audience about the “two Americas”—“one America for all those families who have everything they want ... and then one for everybody else”—and explain to them that “you and I together are going to build one America that works for everybody.” He’d mention his own humble origins—“My father worked in a mill all his life”—and declare that layoffs and plant closings “are not some academic issue for me.” Then, toward the end of his speech, he would pledge, “If you give me a shot at George Bush, I’m gonna give you the White House!” With that, another Mellencamp song would blast over the P.A. system and Edwards would leave the rally, disappearing onto his bus and heading to the next event.
The crowds weren’t that big—ranging from a few dozen at a restaurant in the small city of Florence to several hundred at a gym in Seneca, the mill town where Edwards was born—or even that boisterous; but they clapped and cheered at all the appropriate times, and many of them told the huge traveling pack of reporters afterward that they planned to vote for Edwards, if not necessarily for the reasons the candidate had just stressed. “It doesn’t make a lot of difference to me that he’s from the South,” a retired steelworker named Sam Wragg said after a rally in Georgetown, at which Edwards had emphasized his Southern roots. “But hopefully it’ll help him do well with other people here.”
In the end, what seemed to make the difference for Edwards in South Carolina was effort. While every other candidate, save Al Sharpton, left the state on the Friday before the primary, Edwards—with the exception of a 24-hour whirlwind trip to Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma—stayed in South Carolina through Election Day. And, perhaps more important, over the course of his campaign here, Edwards went to South Carolina’s not so well-traveled parts. “Most candidates just run the corridor of Greenville-Columbia-Charleston,” one Edwards staffer explained, “but he’s visited all forty-six counties.” As for why Kerry, in his one major rally in South Carolina during primary week, drew a much larger crowd than attended Edwards events, the same staffer quipped, “If our candidate came once every six months, he’d draw the whole state, too.”
UP CLOSE, EDWARDS’S discipline as a candidate doesn’t make for the most exciting campaign. Which is why, while big-name pundits often sound like besotted teenagers when they talk about Edwards, the reporters who travel with the candidate every day are more ambivalent about him. It’s not exactly a hostile relationship, but that’s because, as one reporter put it, “There’s no relationship with him at all. He doesn’t interact with us.”
Save for the occasional media availability—usually a brief, unruly scrum held after a rally, during which Edwards would reply to almost every shouted question with a stock answer—the traveling press in South Carolina was kept at a distance from the candidate. While Edwards cruised around the state on his own bus—a luxury coach dubbed “The Real Solutions Express” by his campaign but jokingly referred to as “the other America” by some reporters—the traveling press trailed behind him in another bus. Occasionally, select reporters would be invited to ride along with Edwards on his bus and interview him between stops. But even one-on-one interviews with the candidate proved largely unsatisfying. “He’s just so on-message,” griped one reporter. Complained another, “He never has an off-the-cuff moment. He doesn’t ad lib. He doesn’t shoot from the hip.”
Of course, this is probably a large part of his recent success. Over the last few weeks, the more buttoned-down, professional campaigns of Edwards and Kerry have leapt to the front of the Democratic pack, while the less scripted but perhaps more dynamic campaigns of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark have slipped. And it has presumably not been lost on Edwards’s staff that, in the 2000 Republican race, George W. Bush’s tightly disciplined, press-averse campaign wound up beating John McCain’s media lovefest.
ON ELECTION NIGHT, at a rally in a cavernous Columbia nightclub, Edwards enjoyed the largest, most enthusiastic crowd of his South Carolina campaign. When CNN declared him the winner of the state’s primary shortly after 7:00 p.m., his supporters erupted in a prolonged cheer; and, when the candidate himself arrived at the club about 45 minutes later, the chants of “Edwards! Edwards! Edwards!” had a heartfelt timbre that had been missing from earlier events. Edwards made his way through the crowd to the stage as “Small Town” played, and, once on stage, he offered his familiar thumbs-up.
Standing in front of supporters and family, including his wife and his parents, Edwards began his remarks by exclaiming, “It’s a long way from that little house in Seneca, South Carolina.” The crowd erupted again. “And today,” he continued, “we said clearly to the American people that, in our country, our America, everything is possible.” Looking out past the audience and into the cameras that were carrying his speech live on all the cable networks, Edwards said, “And so tonight we stand at a crossroads. Will we have a president who actually understands the problems of working people? Will we have the courage to use new fresh ideas to solve old problems like poverty? Will we have the strength and conviction to make this vision of hope and optimism into a reality?” He paused. “If the American people give me a shot at George Bush in November, I will give them back the White House!”
Soon red, white, and blue balloons were dropping from the ceiling, Mellencamp was blaring over the P.A., and Edwards was making his way from the stage to do a round of satellite interviews with the cable networks. Most of the crowd stayed put, drinking beers and smoking cigars and shooting pool. But few seemed to be paying attention to the televisions around the nightclub that were delivering regular updates of Edwards’s neck-and-neck race with Clark in Oklahoma. Just outside the club, Phil Phunn was still trying to sell his buttons. He bounced around excitedly as he recounted Edwards’s remarkable rise— and how he’d witnessed it firsthand in the month he’d been following the candidate. “I’ve driven through twenty-two states in thirty-two days to be with him,” he said. A few people passed by, and Phunn called after them, “One for four dollars! Four for ten!” They kept walking. Phunn looked at the easel on which he displayed his wares. There were a lot of buttons still there, but not quite as many as the day before. He smiled. “We did OK tonight,” he said. “We did OK.”
This article appeared in the February 16, 2004 issue of the magazine.