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Edwards and Clark bracing for a Dixie showdown

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- With a cold rain pelting the Appalachian hill country, North Carolina Senator John Edwards and retired Army General Wesley K. Clark traded barbs yesterday as they barnstormed across Tennessee and Virginia in what has become an increasingly bitter contest to claim the mantle of Dixie-born challenger to the Democratic presidential race's front-runner, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kerry.

 

Both candidates view the race as a war of attrition where, in a few weeks, only one man will remain standing against Kerry.

Both Edwards and Clark say that only Bill Clinton's 1992 electoral recipe, which included victories in five Southern states, can unseat President Bush.

By contrast, Kerry, who flew to hotly contested Tennessee last night after spending most of the week in the North, has suggested he does not need the South to win.

With a hectic primary schedule looming in the weeks ahead, the race may soon be winnowed down to Kerry against a Southern candidate, potentially presenting Democratic voters with two competing visions of electability, one focused on winning on both coasts and in the Rust Belt, the other drawing strength from the South.

Virginia and Tennessee, which vote Tuesday, may decide in large part who between Edwards and Clark wears the mantle of the South.

Clark, a political neophyte who has never had to vote on legislation, framed himself as an outsider and a war hero as he campaigned from eastern Tennessee to rural Virginia. "John Edwards is also a good man . . . but John is also a senator, he's part of the culture," Clark told an enthusiastic crowd at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. "He voted in favor of corporate subsidies and against veterans' benefits . . . so what you're looking at in me is an outsider."

Later in the day, Edwards returned fire, saying the Clark campaign's characterization of his position was "wrong. . . . I have supported veterans consistently. I have voted dozens of times to extend benefits for veterans."

Edwards added that he cosponsored a bill to give veterans the same health benefits as US senators. He refused to comment further on Clark or Kerry, saying he wanted to run a positive race: "I'm going to continue to run the campaign I've been running."

Edwards, casting himself as humble populist, started the day in Virginia farm country and finished in Memphis. He blasted American firms that move jobs overseas, telling an audience in Blacksburg, Va., yesterday: "Twenty years ago -- you heard about buying American. Well, how about hiring American?"

While the two fought it out just below the Mason-Dixon Line, Kerry campaigned in Michigan. Kerry left it to surrogates to make the case that despite some of his recent comments, he takes Southern votes seriously.

"I think you have to be competitive in the South," former Georgia senator Max Cleland said. "John Kerry is going after every vote in America."

Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, once a presidential contender and now a Kerry supporter, said yesterday that Democrats could win in the GOP-dominated South: "We have to compete very hard there. We get caught up in the idea that the country is 50-50, and Democrats can't compete in border states or Southern states."

Since arriving in Tennessee on Wednesday, Clark has taken a much more aggressive tone, going after Kerry and especially Edwards, with accusations that they belong to a nefarious elitist culture in Washington -- pronouncing it "WAR-shington."

"The difference between John Edwards and me . . . in addition to [his] being a Washington insider, he doesn't have any serious national security experience, whereas I'm the only person in the race who understands national security," Clark told reporters yesterday.

Edwards aides think the North Carolina senator fares better with moderate and conservative voters than Clark does. Exit polls from the recent vote in Oklahoma, where Clark narrowly beat Edwards, showed the senator outperforming the retired general in GOP-leaning and rural counties. Clark ran strongest in the urban centers of Oklahoma City and Tulsa. In South Carolina exit polls, Edwards handily beat Kerry among voters concerned about the economy, less educated voters, and rural white voters. In that vote, Edwards, Kerry, and to a lesser extent, the Rev. Al Sharpton, split the sizable black vote. This political equation -- blue-collar whites plus a portion of blacks -- gave Edwards a convincing win in South Carolina. His campaign hopes to repeat it in Virginia and Tennessee. "All this is evidence that Edwards is the one who can not only win the Democratic base, but add on to it," said Harrison Hickman, a pollster for Edwards. "The polls in Virginia and Tennessee are looking a lot like they did in South Carolina."

But John Seigenthaler, former editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean newspaper, said the back-and-forth between Clark and Edwards would have little impact on the vote. Tennessee, he said, is divided into four distinct media markets, making it hard to get a new, negative message out so close to election day.

Next door, Virginia is similar to South Carolina in that black voters wield considerable influence. Blacks are expected to make up about 40 percent of Tuesday's turnout. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the first black presidential candidate, won Virginia in 1988, the last time the state held a Democratic primary. In addition to blacks, Virginia contains two other distinct voting blocs: the north, filled with affluent Washington suburbs, leaned toward Michael S. Dukakis in 1988; the more rural south and west of the state supported Tennessee senator Al Gore, who in 1988 was considered conservative.

Globe staff writer Susan Milligan contributed to this report from Warren, Mich. Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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