John Edwards may have yet to give his official endorsement to either of the Democratic presidential hopefuls, but his prominent local supporters—and their wallets—are lining up behind U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in his bid to secure the nomination.
This week, Triangle supporters who commit to raising at least $10,000 for Obama will meet with Obama's campaign manager David Plouffe at a lunch organized by Tim Toben, Edwards' former environmental adviser and a major Edwards fundraiser. Toben, of Chapel Hill, became a convert to the Obama camp after a two-day trip to the Illinois senator's Chicago headquarters earlier this month, at the campaign's invitation.
"It just became clear to me that it's no accident that this candidate is doing so well," says Toben. "He clearly is a new force on the scene, but like a lot of great CEOs, he has hired very smart people to run his organization."
The Feb. 21 event will be hosted by the Raleigh law firm Kirby & Holt, where Edwards' former law partner and close friend from law school, David Kirby, is an attorney. Employees at the firm have given almost $27,000 to the Edwards campaign in the 2008 election cycle, according to federal campaign finance reports.
Prominent civil rights lawyer Adam Stein, who has supported Edwards since his first run for the U.S. Senate in 1998, is also supporting Obama.
"I was loyal to John. I was happy to be an enthusiastic supporter of his, but since he was gone, I'm freed up from those loyalties," Stein says. "I have been involved in lots of campaigns and [Obama] is the most inspiring candidate I can remember."
Edwards dropped out of the race Jan. 30 after a two-year campaign for the White House. He was unable to match money or votes with his two high-profile opponents, Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton.
However, Edwards outpaced his competition in North Carolina. Edwards raised $2.2 million in his home state through the end of 2007—about triple the coffers of Clinton or Obama. More than half of that came from Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, according to campaign finance reports.
Those donors seem to be shifting allegiances to Obama en masse, as well as tapping their networks to solicit contributions for him.
"All the people that I called were people in my former life that I called for Edwards and they are saying yes," Stein says.
Obama is also courting Edwards' endorsement. He visited the former senator at his Chapel Hill home Feb. 17.
The Raleigh lunch has drawn a lot of interest, Toben says. "We have commitments from about 20 people and I think we'll end up without about 50," Toben says. "I think there are a few of us that will raise anywhere between $250,000 to $500,000."
Chapel Hillians Jim Protzman and his wife Jane Brown, also former Edwards supporters and donors, have offered to host an Obama fundraiser.
"When I start thinking about all the local races, I start to try to calculate what's the best shot for down ticket," says Protzman, a liberal blogger. "I feel like an Obama candidacy in a general election will have the effect of increasing Democratic Party turnout—traditional as well as new voters—and probably won't crank up the rabid right the way a Hillary candidacy would."
Protzman and Brown hosted a Kerry/Edwards event and raised $150,000 at one party. Protzman says 80 percent of the former Edwards supporters he talks to are now supporting Obama.
The exact amount Edwards' contributors have given to Obama in the three weeks since Edwards dropped out is unclear; campaign finance reports for February will be submitted to the Federal Election Commission later this month.
Money does not necessarily equal votes though. Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh company, found that Obama leads Clinton by a slim margin in North Carolina, just 42 percent to 40 percent. The poll also suggested that voters who favored Edwards are jumping to the Clinton and Obama campaigns in almost equal numbers, at 41 percent each.
"In my view, Barack Obama brings huge number of disenfranchised folks to the polls," says Toben. "He brings people of color. He brings lots of Democrats. And he brings independents to the polls."
The North Carolina primary is May 6.