John Edwards did a large favor for Sen. Barack Obama, but the Illinois senator is not out of the woods yet.
The former North Carolina senator's endorsement last week of Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination blunted Sen. Hillary Clinton's ability to celebrate her two-to-one West Virginia primary landslide.
But, even if Obama is nominated and chooses Edwards for vice president, as many hope he will, the old adage still remains overwhelmingly true that voters vote for the candidate, not the running mate. Obama still needs to reach more of the folks who have supported him the least.
According to Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, the savvy Virginia-based consultant who helped Edwards and other Democrats improve their rural vote: We make too much of "color" and talk too little about "culture."
Culture matters. Democrats have long been frustrated to see their party, historically the party of America's working-class, being rejected by the very voters its policies are intended to help.
For example, Democratic presidential nominees have not won a majority of working-class white males at the ballot box since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Since then, Bill Clinton came closest in 1992 by connecting culturally, not just politically. When he said "I feel your pain," a lot of people believed him.
Obama's weak appeal to blue-collar voters is tied to his other liability, his newness to America's political stage. Lower income voters tend to be the least knowledgeable about "the skinny kid with the funny name," as Obama cheerfully introduced himself during his Senate campaign. In his presidential quest, they have been the most likely to believe the false rumors that he's Muslim, refuses to salute the flag, hangs out with radicals and doesn't appreciate the values of people who work hard for a living.
Obama's awareness of that cultural gap probably explains why he's taken to wearing his American flag lapel pin again. It may be a small thing to him intellectually, as he has said, but it does a lot to shatter some of the false Internet-fed impressions about him that have been allowed to grow and harden in some neighborhoods.
Ironically, despite Republican attempts to paint Obama as a liberal, he is in many ways a cultural conservative. His 2004 Democratic National Convention speech that launched his rapid rise on the national stage, you may recall, was grounded in values that made him the Democratic Party's answer to Colin Powell and Bill Cosby.
People from across the political spectrum hoped Obama might transcend the nation's racial divide. That effort was brought rapidly down to Earth by the inflammatory sound bites of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. Obama's image as a unifier can rise again by speaking to issues that connect with people's daily lives. One example has been embedded in his biography: the breakdown of the American family.
The rise of out-of-wedlock births is one the thorniest issues facing the black community today. But the issue reaches beyond race. Out-of-wedlock births have risen to almost 70 percent in black America, almost half of Hispanic births and more than a fourth of white births. In 1950, the rates for all three were about 10 percent.
Add in the high rates of divorce and other parental breakups and you have large numbers of American children growing up in single-parent households. Some 24 million children live apart from their fathers, according to the National Fatherhood Initiative. As Roland Warren, the initiative's president, has said, "Kids have a hole in their soul the shape of their dad."
Obama knows that feeling, as his first autobiography recounts. His parents were married, but his Kenyan father abandoned his mother when Barack was very young. He was raised mostly by his mother's parents.
In endless arguments, conservatives cite the welfare policies of "the nanny state." Liberals point to the disappearance of jobs and other community resources that give families assistance.
Obama has cited both. He also has introduced legislation to remove some of the government penalties on married families and crack down on men avoiding child-support payments.
Yet, beyond occasional mentions of being raised by a single mom, Obama has not used his bully pulpit very much to couple government action with the promotion of marriage and other personal responsibility. That's not easy to do without being accused of "blaming the victims" for their problems. But, Obama could hardly find a more worthy topic for a national conversation.