NEW ORLEANS — Democrat John Edwards bowed out of the race for the White House on Wednesday, saying it was time to step aside “so that history can blaze its path” in a campaign now left to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
"It is time for me to step aside," said Edwards, ending his second campaign in a hurricane-ravaged section of New Orleans where he began it more than a year ago. “With our convictions and a little backbone we will take back the White House in November.”
Edwards said Clinton and Obama had both pledged that “they will make ending poverty central to their campaign for the presidency.”
“This is the cause of my life and I now have their commitment to engage in this cause,” he said before a small group of supporters. He was joined by his wife Elizabeth and his three children, Cate, Emma Claire and Jack.
Edwards said that on his way to make his campaign-ending statement, he drove by a highway underpass where several homeless people live. He stopped to talk, he said, and as he was leaving, one of them asked him never to forget them and their plight.
“Well I say to her and I say to all those who are struggling in this country, we will never forget you. We will fight for you. We will stand up for you,” he said, pledging to continue his campaign-long effort to end what he frequently said was “two Americas,” one for the powerful, the other for the rest.
The former North Carolina senator did not immediately endorse either Clinton, seeking to become the first female president, or Obama, the strongest black candidate in history.
Edwards told reporters he would meet with Clinton and Obama before deciding whether to make an endorsement. He set no timetable for deciding whether to endorse either candidate.
Praise from Clinton, Obama
Both of them praised Edwards — and immediately began courting his supporters.
Video: Brian Williams takes Newsvine questions “John Edwards ended his campaign today in the same way he started it — by standing with the people who are too often left behind and nearly always left out of our national debate,” Clinton said.
Obama, too, praised Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. At a rally in Denver, he said the couple has “always believed deeply that two Americans can become one, and that our country can rally around this common purpose,” Obama said. “So while his campaign may have ended, this cause lives on for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America.”
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The impact of Edwards’ decision will be felt in one week’s time, when Democrats hold primaries and caucuses across 22 states, with 1,681 delegates at stake.
Four in 10 Edwards supporters said their second choice in the race is Clinton, while a quarter prefer Obama, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo poll conducted late this month.
Edwards amassed 56 national convention delegates, most of whom will be free to support either Obama or Clinton.
As expected, Edwards said he was suspending his campaign rather than ending it, but aides said that was simply legal terminology so that he can continue to receive federal matching funds for his campaign donations.
An immediate impact of Edwards’ withdrawal will be six additional delegates for Obama, giving him a total of 187, and four more for Clinton, giving her 253. A total of 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.
Edwards won 26 delegates in the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina contests. Under party rules, 10 of those delegates will be automatically dispersed among Obama and Clinton, based on their vote totals in those respective contests. The remaining 16 remain pledged to Edwards, meaning his campaign will have a say in naming them.
Three superdelegates — mainly party and elected officials who automatically attend the convention and can support whomever they choose — had already switched from Edwards to Obama before news of Edwards’ withdrawal from the race.
Kate Michelman, an adviser to the campaign and former president of NARAL-Pro Choice America, said she spoke to Edwards Wednesday morning.
“He felt that this was the moment to take this step, given the reality of this campaign. This campaign has been about two celebrity candidates — excellent and qualified candidates — but celebrity candidates,” Michelman said.
Edwards waged a spirited top-tier campaign against the two better-funded rivals, even as he dealt with the stunning blow of his wife’s recurring cancer diagnosis. In a dramatic news conference last March, the couple announced that the breast cancer that she thought she had beaten had returned, but they would continue the campaign.
Their decision sparked a debate about family duty and public service. But Elizabeth Edwards remained a forceful advocate for her husband, and she was often surrounded at campaign events by well-wishers and emotional survivors cheering her on.
Edwards announced his campaign was ending with his wife and three children at his side. Then he set off to work with Habitat for Humanity at the volunteer-fueled rebuilding project Musicians’ Village.
With that, Edwards’ campaign ended the way it began 13 months ago — with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn’t hear the cries of the downtrodden.
From moderate to progressive
Edwards burst out of the starting gate with a flurry of progressive policy ideas — he was the first to offer a plan for universal health care, the first to call on Congress to pull funding for the war, and he led the charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and need to be reigned in.
The ideas were all bold and new for Edwards personally as well, making him a different candidate than the moderate Southerner who ran in 2004 while still in his first Senate term. But the themes were eventually adopted by other Democratic presidential candidates — and even a Republican, Mitt Romney, echoed the call for an end to special interest politics in Washington.
Edwards’ rise to prominence in politics came amid just one term representing North Carolina in the Senate after a career as a trial attorney that made him millions. He was on Al Gore’s short list for vice president in 2000 after serving just two years in office. He ran for president in 2004, and after he lost to John Kerry, the nominee picked him as a running mate.
Elizabeth Edwards first discovered a lump in her breast in the final days of that losing campaign. Her battle against the disease caused her husband to open up about another tragedy in their lives — the death of their teenage son Wade in a 1996 car accident. The candidate barely spoke of Wade during his 2004 campaign, but he offered his son’s death to answer questions about how he could persevere when his wife could die.
Even as Obama and Clinton collected astonishing amounts of money that dwarfed his fundraising effort, Edwards maintained a loyal following in the first voting state of Iowa that made him a serious contender. He came in second to Obama in Iowa, an impressive feat of relegating Clinton to third place, before coming in third in the following three contests.
The loss in South Carolina was especially hard because it was where he was born and he had won the state in 2004.
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