Some of John Edwards’ best friends are black. Unfortunately, Oprah is not one of them.
The Edwards campaign held a conference call today with a group of African-American leaders from South Carolina, who praised the former senator’s commitment to issues that matter to black voters. Unlike his Democratic opponents, Edwards "has committed himself to infrastructure and rural communities, rather than having celebrities come in and sign autographs," said South Carolina State Rep. Leon Howard.
Whatever could that mean? Could the call possibly be timed to coincide with Oprah’s tour on behalf of Barack Obama? "No, no," said Howard. "We’re certainly not intimidated by Oprah being here." "This is not a call about Oprah," said South Carolina state director John Moylan. It’s about Edwards’ commitment to health care, education, and other issues that matter to African-American voters. In other words, yes, obviously.
Edwards faces an uphill battle in South Carolina, his home state. And this is not a gentle incline: He still polls around 10 percent statewide. His numbers among blacks are even worse : A Winthrop University poll of black voters this fall found that Obama drew 35 percent and Hillary drew 31 percent. Edwards came in around 3 percent.
But according to the leaders on the call, the polls are wrong. "I don’t think he’s trailing, he’s not behind," said Spartanburg City Councilwoman Linda Dogan. "There’s no doubt in my mind that Sen. Edwards is leading," said Tyrone Freeman of the Service Employees International Union. He added that he thinks the polls "reflect excitement" about the first viable black presidential candidate, but that "people will make decisions on the issues that affect their lives." Dr. James Blassingame of the National Baptist Convention said he thinks Edwards’ understanding of these issues will "pull him through" in the final weeks.
The fact is, if Edwards ends up being competitive in South Carolina, it’s not going to be because locals decided to pore over his policy briefs the week before the election. It’s going to be because he performed well in Iowa. Yes, he won South Carolina in 2004. But John Kerry wasn't exactly a commanding presence among African-Americans, at least not on the scale of Clinton or Obama. And that’s just it: Edwards’ problem in winning over black voters isn’t Oprah. It’s his opponents.