John Edwards is nothing if not dogged. It's a quality that made him rich, and won him a seat in the U.S. Senate, and it's what kept him on the campaign trail on the quest for the Democratic nomination for President for the better part of the last five years.
But even Edwards' boundless optimism and energy has his limits, and today he admitted what all the pundits and politicos have been saying for the past month: the Democratic contest is a two-person race, and Edwards is not one of them. Four days after coming in a disappointing third in his native state of South Carolina, Edwards told a crowd in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, where he launched his campaign more than a year ago, that he will "step aside so that history can blaze its path." He leaves the race with promises from the two remaining Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, to continue his commitment to poverty. "They have both pledged to me that as President of the United States they will both make poverty and economic inequality central to their presidencies," Edwards said. "This is the cause of my life and I now have their commitment to engage in this cause."
Edwards, who after speaking went with his family to work on some Habitat for Humanity houses being built in the area, did not endorse either Obama or Clinton. Though he has said many times in recent months that Obama and he are both "agents for change" while Clinton represents the "status quo," sources said he would not rule out anyone in considering his endorsement, which will likely not come before Super Tuesday. He will now return home to North Carolina to spend time with his family, where he is expected to weigh which candidate could be most effective in furthering his priorities of poverty and corruption.
Edwards' challenge from the beginning of his presidential quest was to stay relevant. After losing the 2004 election as John Kerry's running mate, he no longer held a public platform, having chosen to run for President instead of a second term representing North Carolina in the Senate. He signed up to head a Poverty Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and launched a charity with his wife, Elizabeth, called College for Everyone, where students worked 10 hours a week in exchange for scholarships.
Edwards' stump speech in 2004 had been about the two Americas, one where the poor live increasingly neglected lives and the other where the rich grow richer. That remained the central theme of his 2008 populist campaign. "Our campaign from the very beginning has been about one central thing and that is to give voice to millions of Americans who have absolutely no voice in this democracy," he would say, as he did conceding South Carolina, never forgetting to remind voters of his Horatio Alger background as the son of a poor mill worker. "If you're one of the forgotten middle class, people who are working and struggling just to pay their bills, literally worried about every single day, we will give you voice in this campaign."
"John Edwards didn't really move to the left as much as he began to use the language of class war," said Michael Munger, a political science professor at Duke University. "And that was a tactic designed to appeal to the angry left in Iowa, and the to laid-off factory workers of South Carolina."
The strategy at first seemed shrewd: build on Edwards' surprisingly good showing in Iowa in 2004 and make his native South Carolina his firewall while garnering union support. It was designed to take on the establishment candidate that everyone knew was going to run: former First Lady Hillary Clinton.
What no one, not Clinton or Edwards, was prepared for was the insurgency candidacy of Senator Barack Obama. Suddenly Edwards was running against a version of himself in 2004: the young, fresh, optimistic face, the Washington outsider with a thin resume but lots of charm, ruffling some feathers as he jumped the line. Except this version was an African American celebrity candidate with a cult-like following. Big and small donors flocked to Obama, the freshman Senator from Illinois, as did the endorsements, and suddenly Edwards seemed like a third wheel.
And there were other complications. Edwards announced his candidacy in New Orleans' Ninth Ward, redoubling up on his pledge to fight corruption in Washington on behalf of the neglected and needy. But he was plagued by a series of missteps that damaged his image as a crusader for the poor. First came a spate of stories when Edwards built a $6 million home on 100 acres outside Chapel Hill in 2005. Then came an embarrassing disclosure that he paid $400 for his carefully coifed haircut. Finally, it turned out working with non-profits wasn't the only thing Edwards, a former trial lawyer whose estimated personal worth is as much as $30 million, did after the 2004 elections; he also worked for a New York hedge fund, earning an undisclosed sum. When asked about a possible contradiction between his words and actions, Edwards gave the unconvincing reply that he wanted to learn about the economy: "I do think it's important for the President of the United States to have a good understanding of our financial markets, how they operate, where the incentives are, where the incentives aren't."
Even more seriously, in March 2007 Elizabeth Edwards' breast cancer she was first diagnosed in November 2004 came back. While treatable, the disease had progressed to a stage that's incurable. Speculation raged that Edwards would drop out of the race, but he stayed in. Six months later dropout rumors resurfaced when the campaign announced it would accept public financing. Facing not one, but two candidates who were outraising him 3 to 1, Edwards was forced to accept matching public funds in a deal that severely limited how much he could spend in comparison to his rivals. But, again, Edwards weathered the storm and forged on.
While he managed to pull out a surprising second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, beating out Clinton, he placed a disappointing third in New Hampshire and his campaign was stunned when he garnered just 4% of the vote in the Nevada caucuses. After losing South Carolina, the only state he won while in the race in 2004, he initially vowed to fight on all the way to the convention, focusing on southern states like Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Oklahoma on Super Tuesday; many speculated that Edwards could play a key role in what is shaping up to be a drawn-out delegate fight between Clinton and Obama.
"In different ways we have been thinking and talking out loud since taking third in New Hampshire," Trippi said. "Every day we were looking for ways to break out against these two candidates ... It became clearer and clearer after South Carolina on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, the press was really focused on Clinton and Obama that it was going to be tougher and tougher for us to break through. And contrary to what staff or pundits may say the idea of playing the political game of kingmaker or spoiler never really appealed to him. In his mind it was a clear shot at the nomination or nothing." Trippi, who had plane tickets to Atlanta for debate prep today, received an e-mail at 3 a.m. this morning to come instead to New Orleans, and he knew the decision had been made. In the end, with dwindling money and no victories in sight on Super Tuesday or beyond, Edwards had decided to call it quits.
Edwards leaves the race having made a big impact on the two remaining candidates. His populist rhetoric forced his rivals to compete for union support, and he was the first out of the gate with detailed plans for universal healthcare and education, putting pressure on the field to match him. "He led on just about every single issue: poverty, economic stimulus to universal healthcare," said Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to Edwards' campaign. "He pushed both of them further than they would've gone without him. When they wanted to blur the lines and not have real proposals, he came out with them and forced the others to move ahead." The former trial lawyer arguably won a majority of the debates, time and again challenging his opponents to refuse money from lobbyists and speed up their plans for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq.
What his exit will mean at the polls is less clear. On the one hand, it should help Obama consolidate the sizable anti-Hillary contingent of the Democratic Party. At the same time, however, he drew more votes from Clinton than Obama in the first four contests blue-collar white workers so it could also help her fend off Obama, whose recent endorsement by Ted Kennedy should help with organized labor. And if anyone should pay close attention to the race that Edwards has waged, it's Obama: if he doesn't win the nomination, four years from now he could be in John Edwards' shoes.