"You said that the politics of lifting people up beats the politics of bringing people down," a pumped-up Edwards told shouting and cheering supporters at a victory party at a restaurant in the South Carolina capital.
"And, today, we said clearly to the American people that in our country, our America, everything is possible."
His voice raspy from days of nonstop campaigning, Edwards began Tuesday hoping for a breakthrough victory in South Carolina, while retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark fought to keep his candidacy alive in Oklahoma.
Edwards finished second to Clark in a tight race in Oklahoma Tuesday night.
Edwards had said he needed to win South Carolina -- his birth state --- to remain a presidential candidate. He won by dominating among voters who called the economy their biggest concern.
He also scored well among whites, older people, the less-educated and voters who called themselves moderate or conservative.
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Edwards split the black vote with Kerry, despite the Massachusetts senator's high-profile endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn, the state's most influential black politician.
Seven states held primaries Tuesday. At stake were 269 pledged delegates -- more than 10 percent of the 2,162 needed for the nomination -- in Missouri (74), Arizona (55), South Carolina (45), Oklahoma (40), New Mexico (26), Delaware (15) and North Dakota (14).
Party leaders hope to have a presumptive nominee in place by mid-March to begin the race against President George W. Bush.
Edwards' campaign recognized that Kerry,
who won five states and far more delegates Tuesday,
remained the clear front-runner and a formidable obstacle to Edward's hopes of winning the Democratic nomination.
But the South Carolina vote not only kept Edward's candidacy alive, his wide margin of victory over Kerry gave it new impetus.
"We won South Carolina in a resounding fashion and won both the African-American and white vote in South Carolina, and we go from here to other states -- Michigan, Virginia and Tennessee," Edwards told The Associated Press. "It's very easy to lay out the map to get us to the nomination."
Heading into the seven-state race, Kerry had 115 delegates to Howard Dean's 114. The other candidates lagged far behind.
Clark's supporters were braced for a bad night after the exit polls showed Edwards' early Oklahoma lead.
"I think the general is about to meet Sitting Bull," said David Paterson, Senate Minority Leader of the New York legislature and a Clark backer.
At Clark's Oklahoma City headquarters, the candidate's 34-year-old son, Wesley Clark Jr., told reporters he wanted his father to quit the race if he did not win Oklahoma.
"It's really been disillusioning," the younger Clark said. "You go out and see the way politics really works. It is a dirty business filled with a lot of people pretending to be a lot of things they are not."
For the voters, the economy was at or near the top of their concerns in South Carolina, Delaware, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arizona, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International.
Exit polls also showed a sizable turnout of voters with close ties to the military. Two in three South Carolina voters, and an even larger share of Oklahoma voters, had served in the military or had someone in their household who did.
This also was true for about half of Missouri, Arizona and Delaware voters.
Edwards' schedule has him in Tennessee and Virginia on Wednesday before he appears on "The Late Show With David Letterman" to read Letterman's top-10 list.
Nearly half the voters in South Carolina were black, and nearly one in six in Arizona were Hispanic, the first contests with sizable minority populations in the primary campaign.
In Missouri and Delaware, about 15 percent of the voters were black.
Ahead are two more southern primaries -- Virginia and Tennessee -- next Tuesday.
Edward's campaign chairman, Ed Turlington, said Edwards' victory had "national significance" because all candidates had campaigned in South Carolina.
Turlington said that even if Edwards did not score well in Michigan's contest on Saturday, he expected to add to his delegate total there.
Tennessee and Virginia are the next "targets of opportunity," Turlington said.
Turlington said the campaign also is looking further down the road and beefing up its "infrastructure" in Wisconsin, which has a Feb. 17 primary, as well as in New York and Ohio.
Wisconsin is "a place where his message resonates well," Turlington said.
Edwards did poorly Tuesday among those who most valued electability.
Among voters who said the ability to beat President Bush was most important, twice as many picked Kerry.
Edwards was not focusing on Saturday's contests in Michigan and Washington state, instead putting most of his focus on Virginia and Tennessee. Both states border on North Carolina.
There he will make his stand.
Polls show Kerry with a slight lead in Tennessee, and analysts suggested he's the early favorite in Virginia as well.
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