This should be a friendly place for John Edwards. It is in the Low Country of South Carolina, the state where he was born and a place where his message about haves and have-nots should have great reach.

This was the first stop Friday on John Edwards’ “Bringing It Home” tour, another chance for the populist native son to remind folks that he alone is the champion of the middle class, that he alone will take on the special interests juggernaut of big oil, drug and insurance companies.

Logic suggests this would be John Edwards’ moment. The nation may be sliding into recession.

Tens of millions struggle without health care insurance, while many others are under-insured. Jobs continue fleeing to cheaper overseas markets.

“And people most at risk are college graduates,” Edwards warned the crowd in Summerville.

Yet this I-told-you-so-four-years-ago moment finds the former North Carolina Democratic senator on the ropes and eclipsed by the forces of celebrity and history, in the form of presidential campaigns from Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

“He’s between a pincer movement right now,” said Blease Graham, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina. “It’s almost as if he’s a prophet ignored in his homeland.”

“This could be Edwards’ last call. If he doesn’t finish at least a strong second, it could be curtains,” Graham added.

The South Carolina Democratic primary is two weeks away, and while recent polls showed Edwards, who finished second in Iowa and third in New Hampshire, running a far-away third, polls can be wrong, as New Hampshire proved on Tuesday.

But setting poll numbers aside, there is a sense that the bright possibilities for the youthful-looking favorite son who won the South Carolina primary four years ago have dimmed. Edwards arrived in Charleston on Thursday to learn that his running mate in 2004, Sen. John Kerry, endorsed Obama – in Charleston, S.C.. Several thousand people attended the Obama event.

Friday’s front page from The (Charleston) Post and Courier headlined the Kerry endorsement, with a small picture of Edwards beneath the fold, with a story about his own return to Charleston inside on page 9.

There’s little electricity in his crowds. A periodic chant at the Summerville event – “We love steelworkers, We love John, We want to see him on the White House lawn” – seemed a little flat and forced. A woman in the crowd turned around to complain that people weren’t chanting loud enough. “You guys would do more at a football game, come on,” she said.

At a food pantry in North Charleston Thursday night, Edwards, who was not particularly talkative or demonstrative, volunteered to pack corn flakes, canned corn and other goods into boxes for the poor. As he approached the cereal boxes, Susan Shapiro repeatedly urged Edwards, “Don’t give up, don’t give up.” Edwards assured her he wouldn’t, and then paused to be photographed holding a 17-pound sweet potato.

“He speaks for me on the issues – health care, the economy, the concerns of working people,” said Shapiro, a retired office manager. “He said he wouldn’t quit and I believe him.”

People who do attend Edwards’ rallies tend to be quietly passionate. Edwards never fails to remind people that some polls show him to be the strongest candidate against any Republican nominee.

Darrell Hinton is a self-described Goldwater Republican from nearby St. George, and he said he would vote for Edwards, just as he did in 2004.

“Clinton has the experience, Barack brings excitement, but John Edwards knows the system and he can address the kitchen table issues,” said Hinton, who believes Edwards can successfully lead the charge for health-care reform.

Edwards does not betray any foreboding gloom. He has long been comfortable in the self-portrayal of the underdog. When asked, as he was at the food pantry, about his campaign plans, Edwards says he is “in this for the long haul.”

In that regard the Edwards determination brings to mind the chant from Monty Python’s Holy Grail, “not dead yet.”

“But he really has to do well here, he has to come in at least second,” said George Frye, a golf consultant who grew up in Robbins, N.C., where Edwards moved as a child. Frye waited outside the food pantry in North Charleston to shake Edwards hand.

“So much of this is momentum,” Frye said.

As the Jan 26 primary approaches, messages from the candidates blur. “It’s all about standing up and fighting for the middle class of this country,” Edwards said Friday. “This is very personal for me.”

These remarks and themes have been adopted by other candidates, Republican and Democratic, and that adds to the challenge facing Edwards.

“This is going to take a lot of leg work,” said Drexel Strickland, a retired farmer and Edwards supporter from Summerville. “And it’s going to be tough.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.