Sitting around a red-hot potbellied stove at the G&P General Store here in Virgilina are the people Sen. John Edwards needs in order to stay in the race for the White House.
To some, it's a surprise that a Democratic presidential contender is vying for votes in these spread-out rural reaches that often tend to lean Republican.
"Why take 50,000 of us against 5 million of them?" wonders Rickie Poole, owner of the general store, offering more a perceived ratio of city folks to country dwellers than the real one that split the country down the middle in 2000.
But while Sen. John Kerry wields strong appeal among hockey dads in the northern Virginia suburbs, Edwards is pursuing more of a "blue highways" strategy, chasing down pickup truck owners and NASCAR impresarios in the state's rural south. It's a strategy that has proved effective already, helping Edwards win in his native South Carolina, and shooting him to a surprise second-place showing in Iowa, where he campaigned hard in rural areas.
Tuesday, Edwards faces crucial contests in Virginia and Tennessee, where his ability to turn out blue-collar Americans in places like Virgilina and Alton could determine the fate of his campaign. Advisers say strong showings would provide a key boost - and could gauge Democrats' ability to win back rural voters this fall, trumping the GOP's appeal on cultural grounds with a message that taps into economic discontent.
"George Bush has a grip on the culture, but Johnny Edwards has a grip on the message," says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a party strategist in Roanoke, Va. who helped craft Democratic Gov. Mark Warner's winning appeal to "NASCAR dads" two years ago and now works on Edwards's campaign.
Polls show Edwards neck and neck with retired Gen. Wesley Clark in Virginia and Tennessee, with Senator Kerry leading in both states. Indeed, the two native Southerners, Edwards and Clark, may be splitting some of the same vote, allowing Kerry to edge ahead. And while both the Edwards and Clark campaigns are lowering expectations for a win, both also say they hope their candidates can emerge as the sole "Kerry alternative."
"Edwards's task is not necessarily to win in either [state], but to at least knock Clark out of the box," says Thomas Schaller, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "His philosophy is to take low-hanging fruit by picking up big wins in smaller communities."
While Democrats most concerned with national security "will likely break for Clark," says University of Tennessee political scientist Michael Fitzgerald, Edwards has an edge with "old-time Southern Democrats and independents.... What makes him attractive is that he's not born of privilege, he's of the South, and he worked his way out of the working class into being a lawyer, though never forgetting his roots. He's clearly the best practitioner of the old art of the stump speech, which is rich in the Southern tradition."
At the same time, Dr. Fitzgerald continues, Edwards can't escape his main liability: a link to trial lawyers. "Independents aren't enthusiastic about lawyers." Indeed, Republicans have labeled Edwards an "ambulance-chaser" for his multimillion dollar personal-injury lawsuits against corporations.
And for all his charm, Edwards's pitch can be a tough sell in regions that lean decidedly conservative.
In Alton, Va., as Stan Morphew looks across his hundreds of plowed acres and ponders Edwards's gambit, his eyebrows arch. The burly farmer in Dickie overalls is skeptical about Edwards's plan to win breaks for the poor: "Around here, people still believe they can lift themselves up, and a lot of them don't think the Democrats want them to be successful - instead, they want them dependent on the government."
Traveling 650 miles a day, Edwards is careening over the Appalachias at a frantic clip. He's lagged in spending, rolling more on personal grit, and he's done it without resorting to negative campaigning - a strategy that has boosted his appeal among Democratic audiences, but has also hindered his ability to draw clear contrasts with front-runner Kerry. Edwards gets his biggest applause with lines about "the politics of hope."
He's an earnest learner who prepared for his Senate campaign by quietly attending party events and taking notes. But he's no country bumpkin: Critics of his Senate race said he downplayed his humble roots among suburban voters in Raleigh and Charlotte. Still, the charisma is potent, and polls show his favorability skyrocketing after events.
In burgs like Virgilina, a crossroads ringed by clod-ridden clay fields and sandy plains, its landmarks the creaky church towers and tiny Town Hall, Edwards's message of small-town redemption hits its truest notes. "Edwards doesn't say 'have-nots,' he doesn't say 'small' or 'meek' or 'the weak' - he just says it's the rich and then there's everybody else," says Dr. Schaller. "So you can see people leaning up in their seats, thinking, 'I'm in Category B.' That's the real power of that message."
In nearby South Boston, Va., says Mr. Morphew, nearly half the populace is without a high school diploma - fertile ground for Edwards, who resonates among voters without secondary education. Scratching his bushy goatee, Morphew says that, were he to vote Democratic, Edwards would be his choice. For one thing, he's "straightforward," Morphew says. "Plus, I like his drawl."