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THOMAS OLIPHANT | WEB EXCLUSIVE

Edwards's lessons for Kerry

LOS ANGELES -- On his way out of the presidential campaign, John Edwards did John Kerry a favor: He exposed a weakness that the Massachusetts senator needs to work on for the next eight months.

In their debate here last week, Edwards had claimed that he was the candidate most likely to do well this fall among independents and Republicans, where inroads are essential to election.

Kerry had objected, replying that it was he who had dominated the large independent vote in New Hampshire and who had crunched Edwards and Wesley Clark in Virginia and Tennessee. There was no evidence, Kerry said, to support Edwards's claim.

That evidence showed up on Super Tuesday.

The fact of the matter is that Kerry developed into one powerful Democrat as he emerged triumphant from Iowa and New Hampshire just six weeks ago. He has the labor union membership solidly in his corner as well as seniors. And for a guy not widely known for his civil rights activism, he has won his close calls (Wisconsin two weeks ago and Georgia on Tuesday) with astonishing dominance among African-Americans.

Edwards, however, demonstrated on Tuesday that Kerry's hold on independents is much weaker and his appeal to possibly disgruntled Republicans is virtually nonexistent. Exhibit A was the predictably close contest in Georgia, but there was evidence as well from Ohio and California.

Exit polls in California showed that while Kerry was crushing the opposition statewide by better than three to one, independent voters (slightly less than one-fourth the primary electorate) were going for him by a much smaller margin, 49-26 percent. In some parts of the sprawling Central Valley and in communities to the east of Los Angeles -- where the middle-class dominates the landscape -- Edwards was almost competitive despite minimal efforts and an overall impression that his campaign was on its last legs.

In pivotal Ohio, where the primary result was much closer to begin with -- 52 percent to 34 percent -- this trend was even more pronounced. Among independents, Edwards may have even edged Kerry by 42-39 percent, and he appeared to have dominated among the tiny sliver of the turnout (5 percent) that included self-identified Republicans.

Georgia, however, produced the most impressive evidence. Kerry won the primary in Edwards's native region by 47-41 percent because he was the overwhelming favorite among African-American voters who accounted for 47 percent of the vote. In this case, overwhelming means a huge margin of 61-25 percent.

However, the reverse was just as true. Among the slightly larger chunk of the electorate that was white, Edwards's margin was a very wide 59-32 percent.

This can also be translated in partisan terms. Kerry's margin among self-identified Democrats in a state that, like many in the South, doesn't register voters by party, was 56-35 percent.

But nearly 30 percent of the voters were not Democrats. Among the roughly one in five who called themselves independent, Edwards led Kerry by 51-32 percent. And among the roughly one in 10 who self-identified as Republican, Edwards won by nearly an eight-to-one margin.

The same picture emerges from the exit poll questions in Georgia about ideology. A bit more than a third of the Georgia voters said they were very or somewhat liberal, and Kerry dominated among them, by about 56-33 percent. But among the 40 percent who said their views are moderate, it was Edwards who was ahead, by 46-40 percent; and among the nearly one in four who called themselves conservative, Edwards was ahead by 53-32 percent.

There was even a final clue in the geographical distribution of the vote. Kerry came out of the state's largest county -- Fulton, which includes Atlanta -- with a two-to-one margin over Edwards, a plurality of nearly 25,000 votes. In all the rest of the state's cities, small towns, and rural areas, his margin was barely 10,000 votes.

There is such a thing as over-interpretation. Kerry, after all, won and won big.

However, he is a little light when it comes to voters on the fringe of the Democratic Party's base. The problem is not simply regional, or peculiar to the South. The voters Kerry lost to Edwards can be found in northern Minnesota and in San Bernadino, Calif.; in southern Illinois as well as southern Georgia; in Tucson as well as southeastern Missouri. They tend to be white, moderately conservative, and not that well-off.

Kerry might learn something from Edwards's widely applauded campaign message. He was winning white Southern votes without a race-based appeal; in fact, he won them with a strong civil rights message. He also won them with a much stronger commitment to stemming the loss of jobs abroad without protectionism. And, recognizing that less partisan voters don't share the Democrats' antipathy toward President Bush, Edwards succeeded by talking more about the future and less about the president.

John Kerry is a work in progress. He's fortunate that his task is not to mend fences with those who didn't vote for him; his task is to build bridges to them.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.

Editor's note
John Kerry has the Democratic nomination for president wrapped up and will be crowned at the party convention in Boston in July. Gay marriage continues to be a hot-button topic in Massachusetts and around the country. President George Bush is fighting a slumping economy and questions about the war in Iraq in his quest for re-election.

With so much going on regionally and at stake nationally, the Globe's five distinguished staff Op-Ed columnists -- Thomas Oliphant, Joan Vennochi, Jeff Jacoby, Derrick Jackson, and Scot Lehigh - will take turns writing one extra column per week, exclusively for Boston.com and the Globe Online.

We're pleased to carry their sharp analysis and commentary to a wider audience.

Teresa M. Hanafin
Editor, Boston.com

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