Selection brings a jolt to Edwards' hometown

Wednesday, July 7, 2004

ROBBINS, N.C. -- In the sleepy, two-stoplight town where Sen. John Edwards grew up, his selection as the Democratic vice presidential nominee brought hope he will give a voice to the values and concerns of the rural South.

"It's your roots," said 52-year-old Sandy Hussey, who went to school with Edwards. "Just like a tree, the roots reach to the tap root and this is the tap root."

This town of 1,200 about an hour south of Raleigh has gone through drastic changes since a teenage Edwards worked summers in the textile plant his father helped manage. That plant and another have closed, along with a poultry processing operation and a homebuilding company -- a loss of more than 2,000 jobs since 1990.

Mayor Mickey Brown said even though Edwards went off to earn millions as a trial lawyer, he never forgot the problems of his hometown, and places like it.

"They're bringing hope back to us," Brown said, "and we need hope."

Political observers say John Kerry's selection Tuesday of the 51-year-old, smooth-talking Southern populist adds a much-needed dose of flash to the Democratic ticket and may help win votes in the GOP stronghold of the South.

Still, former Mayor John L. "Dink" Frye said he doubts Edwards will even carry his hometown, where Republicans outnumber Democrats 11-1.

But the 84-year-old Frye said he'll do anything he can to help Edwards -- starting Tuesday by ferrying a carload of reporters on a tour of the town.

"I think he's just a great man," Frye said. "The nation would be fortunate to have him at the head of the ticket. He's a self-made man."

Frye plays golf twice a week with Edwards' father, Wallace, who said he was delighted and humbled that his son got the nod from Kerry.

"He's worked hard all his life," Edwards' father said. "He's the type of person America needs in government because he doesn't have any agenda for himself."

Ted Arrington, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, believes the Edwards pick gives Kerry and other Democratic candidates more of a chance in key Southern states such as Louisiana, Florida and Arkansas.

"It says Kerry reached out to the South. That Southern accent is going to telegraph that to everybody," Arrington said.

Though recent polls show Bush leading in North Carolina, surveys have suggested having Edwards on the ticket could help Kerry close the gap.

Bush will now have to spend more time in North Carolina, Arrington said, an effort that begins Wednesday with a private fund-raiser in Raleigh that was scheduled before Kerry made his announcement.

Born in Seneca, S.C., Edwards moved as a child to Robbins. The town is one of string of small towns and villages -- others include Seagrove and Whynot -- along N.C. Highway 705.

To the immediate south is the golfing resort of Pinehurst, where next year's U.S. Open tournament will be held. But Robbins is very much part of small-town North Carolina. Signs hanging from lampposts declare it "Hometown USA," railroad tracks cross Middleton Street at the center of town and odiferous livestock trucks rumble through regularly.

Resident Anna Mae Wallace said Edwards remains rooted in Robbins.

"He grew up around here and we all know him. Everybody knows everybody," she said. "If you're rich to start with, you don't know nothing about the poor. But if you're poor to start with and get rich, you know all about it."

But at least one Robbins resident, who declined to give his name, said he wanted nothing to do with Edwards -- a sentiment the North Carolina Republican Party hopes to tap across the state.

"The only thing separating John Edwards from John Kerry is their accents," party chairman Ferrell Blount said. "When it comes to their voting records, both are out of touch with North Carolina voters on important issues like taxes, partial-birth abortion, Medicare reform, and national security."


Associated Press Writer Steve Hartsoe contributed to this story from Raleigh.

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