ROBBINS, N.C. — Verna Hancock and other longtime residents of this small Moore County town served as a willing backdrop for John Edwards' "son-of-a-millworker, rags-to-riches" campaign narrative during two runs for the Democratic nomination for president.
Many of those same hometown supporters already had gone to bed Friday night before ABC aired an interview on "Nightline" where Edwards admitted to an affair two years ago with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter. They missed the former U.S. senator confessing that he had strayed from the values he learned growing up in Robbins. Edwards told ABC he had become "something different than that young boy who grew up in a small town in North Carolina.
"Because that young boy would never have done this, never thought about doing it," Edwards said, "to his family or to his wife."
But as members of the national media took whacks at Edwards, Hancock and others in Robbins muffled their dismay with vows not to condemn him.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
"My first reaction was, 'Of all the people, not John Edwards. I still am in amazement,' " said Hancock, 69, who recalled joining the crowd of supporters in front of the mill where Edwards' father worked on the day Edwards declared his first presidential run before the 2004 election.
Like many who went to lunch after church services, Hancock said Edwards would be forgiven. Robbins is still small enough for the Carolina Fried Chicken and House of Pizza to serve as the one-stop diner for most of the lunch crowd.
Hancock said there are few people in town who did not know Edwards or his parents, who still live in town.
Hancock's connection dates back to when Edwards successfully represented her daughter in a suit against a company whose driver crossed a double line and struck her daughter's husband's vehicle, killing him in the collision, she said.
"He just fell into a trap that we can all fall into," she said. "I would treat him no differently, but he would be snubbed by some people. ... At church this morning, our Sunday school teacher said, 'A lot of people didn't back him anyway.' "
In a county where registered Democrats last outnumbered Republicans in 1988, Edwards' hometown advantage did not prevent the GOP ticket of Bush and Cheney from almost doubling the number of votes cast for John Kerry and Edwards, his vice-presidential running mate, in 2004.
Since then, the number of registered Republicans in Moore County has grown to 25,303 as of this month, while there are 18,139 registered Democrats.
On Sunday, however, even those with partisan differences with Edwards shied away from smug celebrations or condemnations.
Robbins resident Gail Prevatte, a member of the county Republican Party's executive committee, said Edwards' confession brought no extra satisfaction.
"No matter what your party affiliation, if someone from your town is successful, you hate" to see the person embroiled in a scandal, she said. John C. Owen, chairman of the county Republican Party, said he felt bad for Elizabeth Edwards.
"To be involved in something like this -- my heart goes out to his wife," Owen said. "She doesn't need that."
Owen, 76, said he doesn't know Edwards but has met his parents.
"I know they must be embarrassed to death," he said.
Bill Montjoy and his wife, Virginia, first heard about The National Enquirer stories linking Edwards to Hunter and her baby about a month ago.
A football teammate of Edwards in high school, Bill Montjoy lives in a brick ranch home with an inviting front porch less than half a mile from where Edwards' parents live.
(The Edwards home was dark and the driveway empty when a reporter rang the doorbell Sunday afternoon.)
Montjoy said the issue of the paternity of Hunter's baby remains an open-ended question that he hoped would be resolved. Edwards told ABC he would take a paternity test, but Hunter's attorney said Saturday that she would not make the baby available for a such a test. A former campaign aide of Edwards, Andrew Young, previously claimed responsibility for the baby.
Montjoy also said, however, that he can see how easy it would have been for Edwards to stray. Running for president, speaking before adoring throngs on the campaign trail, Montjoy said, it would be easy to lose your bearings.
"That would really be a power trip. That really would," said Montjoy, a quality control technician at an area machine shop. "I think almost anyone would kind of lose sight of reality."
Back at Carolina Fried Chicken, Terry Wyatt said that if Elizabeth Edwards has forgiven her husband, it's time to move on. Wyatt, 55, a captain with the state prison system, said he played high school football and basketball with Edwards.
"If he ran for political office again, I'd vote for him," he said.
Yet the issue of Edwards' previous denials when confronted with Enquirer reports of his affair left some area residents without ties to the Edwards' family with mixed feelings.
"He should have been man enough from the start to say, 'I done it. I'm sorry,' " said Tommy Routh, 66, who works in an area body shop. "I would have more respect for him."