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CBC Giving Edwards Hope

While most members of the Congressional Black Caucus are holding off on making endorsements in the presidential race, a combination of geography, fundraising and personal appeal has given Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) a foot in the door with the influential group.

“He is young, he is energetic, he gets it, and he is true to the basic principles of the party,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.), who has endorsed Edwards for the Democratic nomination. “That’s the approach [former President Bill] Clinton took.”

Edwards has done little to court Congressional endorsements, but half of the eight he has received are from CBC members. Sens. John Kerry (Mass.) and Bob Graham (Fla.), however, have each been able to land three endorsements from the CBC.

“We are seeking out the support and endorsements of lots of leaders that share a vision and values with him,” said Edwards spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri. “That is particularly true with a lot of African-American Members and the CBC. They come from the same place.”

In the past week, Edwards has sought to raise his profile in key battleground states in the presidential primary process, taking to the airwaves in both Iowa and New Hampshire.

The ads, which were produced by David Axelrod, tout Edwards’ small-town roots.

In one spot, Edwards notes that his grandmother “came from a family of sharecroppers” and that his father “worked in a cotton mill all of his life.”

He is funding the ads with the $8.1 million he carried in his war chest at the end of June — a total second only to Kerry.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Texas), a former chairwoman of the CBC and an early Edwards supporter, said “he has raised good money, and we all know it takes money.”

The Edwards camp got another piece of positive news late last week with the release of a poll that showed him breaking into double digits in South Carolina, trailing Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) by only 4 percent.

The Palmetto State is seen as a must-win for Edwards if he hopes to be a major player in the battle for the presidential nomination. Palmieri admitted that “it is important that we do well in South Carolina.”

The South Carolina primary is set for Feb. 3, 2004, and is the first Southern state in the presidential selection process, and the first state with a significant black population to weigh in. Blacks comprise 30 percent of the population in the state according to the 2000 Census, but are a significantly larger chunk of the Democratic primary electorate.

Palmieri acknowledged that endorsements from black leaders are particularly important in South Carolina because “they bring grassroots support with them.”

Perhaps the biggest catch in trying to influence the outcome of the South Carolina primary will be Rep. James Clyburn, a black Democrat who is believed to be leaning strongly toward endorsing Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.).

Interestingly, Edwards’ leadership PAC — the New American Optimists — gave $2,000 to Clyburn’s campaign committee in late June.

One line of thinking is that if Gephardt loses the Iowa caucuses, which he won in his 1988 campaign, he would likely be forced to drop out of the race, throwing Clyburn’s support up for grabs. As a fellow Southerner, Edwards could have the inside track.

Johnson said that Edwards’ Southern roots were key to her endorsement.

“At home in Dallas so many of my friends and good supporters were very strong on him,” said Johnson. “All politics is local.”

Edwards was born in South Carolina but grew up in North Carolina. He was elected to the Senate from the Tar Heel State in 1998, defeating freshman Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R). All six of the state’s House Members have endorsed his campaign, including black Reps. Mel Watt and Frank Ballance.

Noting that 17 of the 39 CBC members hail from Southern states, CBC spokesman Doug Thornell said Edwards’ message is well-tailored to appeal to the group.

“He has a strong Southern, rural message,” said Thornell. “That resonates well with members.”

Edwards spoke before the CBC in late July, just prior to the Congressional August recess. Thornell said that Kerry, Gephardt, Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have also addressed the group.

Both Wynn and Johnson said a number of CBC members will make a decision on a candidate soon after the presidential debates the organization is cosponsoring with the Fox News Channel on Sept. 9 in Baltimore and Oct. 26 in Detroit.

All of the announced candidates — with the exception of Kerry, who is attempting to resolve a schedule conflict — have signed on for the Baltimore event; all nine will be in attendance in Detroit.

“There is some hesitancy to endorse before [the debates] are completed,” said Johnson. “I believe [Edwards] will get more [endorsements] when that process is over.”

Wynn agreed that a prolonged consideration of all the candidates is likely to produce more CBC endorsements for Edwards.

“After we get through with all this chest beating, people are going to look for a candidate with a bread and butter approach to getting things done,” said Wynn.

As for the current Dean boomlet sweeping the country, Wynn said simply: “Do you know what rhymes with Dean? McGovern,” a reference to the landslide presidential loss of liberal South Dakota Sen. George McGovern in 1968.

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