COLUMBIA, South Carolina (CNN) -- Like many prominent African-American leaders in South Carolina, state Sen. Robert Ford supported John Edwards in the race for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
Today, citing his loyalty to the former President Clinton, Ford is backing Sen. Hillary Clinton. To prove it, he points to the big, framed photo of him shaking hands with the senator from New York that hangs in his statehouse office.
But for a Clinton supporter, Ford sure does like Edwards.
"I love John Edwards," Ford said. "All the troops are still in place [from 2004] supporting Edwards. ... He's going to do better than what people think he's going to do."
Such is the conundrum Edwards faces in his 2008 bid. He announced his candidacy in the ravaged Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana, and his message of reforming health care, fighting poverty and fixing schools seems almost tailor-made to win over African-Americans. He remains popular with black leaders such as Ford.
Yet in the competition for African-American votes, Edwards is standing between two formidable opponents: Clinton, the wife of the man Toni Morrison dubbed the "first black president," and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, the charismatic newcomer who is arguably the nation's first viable black presidential candidate.
For Edwards and black voters, timing could be everything.
"It may be bad timing, but it's the only timing he's got," said Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, considered South Carolina's most influential black political leader. "Everybody knew coming out of that  race that he would be trying again this time around. ... Circumstances have not served Edwards particularly well, but this is the only time that he had."
South Carolina is the first primary state where a candidate's support among blacks will be tested. African-Americans make up an estimated 50 percent of Democratic primary voters. It's a constituency that helped propel Edwards to victory in South Carolina's 2004 primary, when he won 37 percent of the black vote, according to exit polls.
This time around, Edwards trails Clinton and Obama by wide margins overall, coming in around 10 percent among South Carolinians in most state polls, trailing Obama by as much as 20 percentage points and Clinton by as much as 30.
Among African-Americans, the numbers are worse.
According to a poll of randomly selected African-Americans conducted last month by Winthrop University and South Carolina's ETV, Obama and Clinton are battling for the lead among black voters, with Obama leading Clinton 35 percent to 31 percent. Edwards came in at 3 percent.
"His 'Two Americas' message resonated with black voters before," said Scott Huffmon of Winthrop University, who conducted the poll. "There are just two candidates this time that have captured the imagination among black voters."
Huffmon added, "I don't personally think this should be read as rejection of John Edwards by black voters."
This "non-rejection" is precisely where the Edwards campaign sees an opening. Despite its well-heeled opponents, the Edwards camp and its African-American surrogates insist, much like they do nationally, that black voters will turn out for Edwards when they examine the pocketbook, dinner-table types of issues that the candidate emphasizes on the stump.
"When we quit having the 'People' magazine race and start having the actual race for president, when people are deciding which candidate best represents their aspirations and their expectations from government, that's where John succeeds," said Elizabeth Edwards in an interview last month before attending a rally for the "Jena 6" in Columbia.
Mrs. Edwards and Harrison Hickman, the campaign's top pollster, dismiss Edwards' low polling results, invoking other candidates who led nationally and in South Carolina at this point four years ago, such as Howard Dean and Sen. Joe Lieberman.
"The reality is last time we weren't doing well among blacks or whites until we started advertising," said Hickman, who has worked with Edwards since before his first Senate race in North Carolina in 1998. "People ask if I'm concerned about being third. I say, 'Not really, last time we were in fifth or sixth place.' "
Hickman also pulled out one of the campaign's favorite trump cards: "We have something we can say to blacks and whites -- that he was born here."
Edwards' staff in South Carolina said that native son status and its network of support from 2004 represents the building block of the campaign to win over black voters. While the Obama camp has made very public its extensive grass-roots efforts here, which include blanketing Bible studies, barber shops and nail salons to sign up supporters, the more cash-strapped Edwards campaign is opting for smaller, private meetings with community leaders to discuss policy matters.
In August, Edwards held a private meeting at historically black Benedict College in Columbia with local African-American leaders.
One such leader, Richland County Council Chairman Joe McEachern, walked into that meeting at Benedict undecided about Clinton, Obama and Edwards. He walked out an Edwards supporter.
"We got into some national things, but you have to pay attention to local issues in South Carolina," McEachern said. "Those are the things he got questioned about, and he did very well."
Leon Howard, chairman of the state Legislative Black Caucus and a paid Edwards consultant, said he would be "comfortable" if the candidate could take 15 percent of the black vote on January 29.
Hickman seemed even more optimistic.
"I think our target is a little higher than that," he said. "If we won the same percentage of whites we won last time and about 15 [percent] to 19 percent of blacks, we would win the state pretty easily."
It will be extremely difficult for Edwards to overcome Clinton's deep-seated loyalty among blacks and Obama's highly regarded grass-roots operation to win a solid plurality of the African-American vote.
Ultimately though, Edwards' success in the state probably will have little to do with South Carolina. As in 2004, the candidate is counting on winning Iowa to propel him through the rest of the early states. E-mail to a friend
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