Robert Novak

RALEIGH, N.C. -- John Edwards returned to a hometown hero's welcome last Wednesday after losing 29 out of 30 contests, good enough for runner-up to John Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination. While Sen. Edwards was given up for dead politically little more than a month ago, one public poll shows that today he would carry North Carolina against President Bush. More troubling to the Republicans than a transitory survey is what ails George W. Bush here.

It is not the war in Iraq, strongly supported in a state known for patriots and warriors. The GOP worries about the sea change here on international trade created by job losses blamed on foreign competition. Edwards' lurch toward protectionism at the end of his presidential campaign reflects the Democratic Party abandoning its heritage of free trade. But it is Republicans who have trouble coping with the new reality.

Republican politicians are chilled by a story making the rounds in the state's political circles. A delegation of North Carolina factory owners recently went to Washington to plead with the White House for relief from foreign competition. They returned complaining that the president's agents responded with the "free trade" mantra. Their verdict: They could no longer support Bush. North Carolina may be changing from a certain "red" state (carried by Bush with 56 percent in 2000) to a potential battleground with hopes for capturing Edwards' Senate seat diminishing. That would foretell a very difficult year nationwide for Republicans.

Johnny Edwards, a flashy multimillionaire trial lawyer new to politics, looked like an extinguished shooting star when this year began. He had dropped out of seemingly sure defeat for Senate re-election to bolster his flagging presidential campaign. Now, after the revival and end of his presidential candidacy, prominent Republicans fear he would win a second term if he re-entered the race (which nobody expects). That adds credence to claims by his supporters that Edwards on the ticket could hand Kerry the state's 15 electoral votes otherwise destined for Bush.

Although Edwards voted consistently against ratifying trade agreements, he did not trumpet the protectionist line until the final stages of his race for president. He lacked sufficient time for this theme to take root in economically depressed Ohio as he hoped, but Edwards the protectionist is well received back home.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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