RALEIGH, N.C. — Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina ended his campaign for president Wednesday, tipping his hat to the man who drove him from the race, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, and promising “to do everything in my power to make him the next president of the United States.”
Edwards decided to call it quits after being clobbered by Kerry in the “Super Tuesday” contests. He flew home to Raleigh from Atlanta overnight for the announcement here at the high school attended by his son Wade, who died in 1996 at age 16 in a car accident.
Officially, Edwards was only “suspending” his campaign rather than abandoning it, a distinction for legal purposes that will allow him to continue raising money to pay off his bills.
For more than a month, Edwards managed to defy the expectations of pundits by running a positive campaign that eschewed strong attacks on his opponents. But as other candidates dropped out, notably onetime front-runner Howard Dean, Democrats’ support coalesced around Kerry as the candidate most likely to beat President Bush in the fall.
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Edwards’ press secretary, Jennifer Palmieri, said that Edwards had been poised to withdraw as long ago as the night of the South Carolina primary, nearly a month ago, but that each passing Tuesday brought good news in terms of support.
Finally, by Tuesday night, “there was too big a gap” between Kerry and Edwards, Palmieri said.Video: Edwards throws support to Kerry
In his concession speech Wednesday, Edwards congratulated Kerry, who trailed badly in pre-primary opinion polls late last year, for fighting back from the political dead and offering Americans an “equal opportunity to do our very best.”
“He’s won because his heart is good. He believes that America is at its best when we all have an equal chance and equal opportunity to do our very best,” Edwards said, reminding voters of the importance of avoiding negative politics
“Those of you who cast your votes for me cast your votes for a new kind of politics,” he said. “You wanted a positive campaign, and you got one for a change.”
Vice President Edwards?
Former President Bill Clinton — whose wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, endorsed Kerry on Wednesday— called Edwards on Wednesday morning to congratulate him for how he conducted his campaign, Palmieri said.
Many Democrats said Edwards’ campaign skills and performance should earn him strong consideration as the Democrats’ vice presidential nominee. Signs reading “Kerry-Edwards” were scattered in the crowd, suggesting a ticket for the fall campaign.
Edwards, who has already announced plans not to seek re-election to the Senate, did not address the possibility in his withdrawal speech, but aides said Wednesday that he would not reject such an overture if asked.
Asked whether Edwards wanted to be Kerry’s running mate, Palmieri said, “His focus between now and November is to help John Kerry get elected.”
Edwards, 50, is a Southern politician in the Bill Clinton mold, a youthful moderate of modest background whose charm and looks gained more attention than his policies at first. He came to politics in mid-life, running for the U.S. Senate from North Carolina in 1998 after earning millions of dollars as a trial attorney.
Edwards’ upbringing was a central theme to his populist message. He announced his candidacy Sept. 16 in front of the empty textile mill in Robbins, N.C., where his father had been employed for 36 years and where Edwards himself had earned money for college by sweeping floors and working as a night watchman.
However, Edwards had not yet served a full Senate term when he began his bid for president. His youthful appearance suggested to critics that he might not be ready for national politics and international leadership. Even to many admirers, he was a promising running mate more than the nominee.
‘Two Americas’ message
Yet his broad smile, Southern charm and message of “two Americas” — one for the privileged, the other for everyone else — helped gain support for a campaign that generally stayed away from attacking other Democrats, except to say their experience in Washington was actually a detriment.
“These are the causes of our party. These are the causes of our country. And these are the causes we will prevail on come November,” he told supporters Tuesday night.
And Edwards was already closing ranks with Kerry as the Democratic Party started turning its full attention on President Bush. Americans “know that George Bush has no idea what’s going on in their lives. He’s out of touch, has no clue what’s going on day to day in their lives. And that’s the reason, come November, he will be out of the White House,” Edwards said.
Edwards scored a surprisingly strong second-place finish in Iowa, won the South Carolina primary and achieved close second-place finishes in Wisconsin and Georgia.
MSNBC.com’s Alex Johnson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.