RALEIGH, N.C. — John Edwards ended his pursuit of the presidential nomination Wednesday amid speculation that his personality and optimism could return to the campaign trail if presumptive nominee John Kerry were to pick him for a running mate.
The freshman senator from North Carolina, who won over voters in part by avoiding negative campaigning, seemed certain to remain a force in the Democratic party. After insisting for months that he was not interested in the vice presidency, his aides said Edwards would not turn down such an offer from Kerry.
Edwards came home Wednesday to formally announce his departure from the race at the Raleigh high school two of his children once attended, including his son, Wade, who died in 1996 at age 16 in a car accident.
"All my life, this country has smiled on me," Edwards told the crowd packed into the Broughton High School gymnasium. "Today, I am smiling right back."
Edwards thanked the crowd for its support of his campaign, which lasted longer than many people expected -- especially considering he won only one state out of 30 to hold primaries or caucuses.
"Thank you for what you've done, all of you who are here," he said.
"In my life, I have learned two great lessons: one that there will always be heartache and struggle, and two, that people of strong will can make a difference. And you and I together . . . made a difference.
Edwards was very gracious during his speech. At times he received thunderous applause.
"It has been my greatest honor to walk with you," he said. "To all my staff and supporters, thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Voters consistently gave Edwards high marks for his positive message, and his approval ratings topped the field. His "two Americas" campaign theme -- that there are two Americas, one for the rich and powerful and the other for everybody else -- struck a chord with many voters.
Edwards' upbringing also was a central theme to his populist message.
He scarcely missed an opportunity to talk about his upbringing as the son of a textile mill worker who lost his job when the factory closed.
"Those of you who cast your votes for me cast your votes for a new kind of politics," Edwards said Wednesday. "You wanted a positive campaign, and you got one for a change."
Yet his sunny side and common-man approach did not give Democrats enough reason to choose him over Kerry.
"Senator Kerry has fought back in this campaign, and he's won because his heart is good," Edwards said. "He believes that America is at its best when we all have an equal chance, and equal opportunity, to do our very best."
Edwards praised Kerry as a presidential candidate, saying he solidly supports the Massachusetts senator, and called Kerry his "friend.
"He served his country courageously in Vietnam," Edwards said. "I've seen it. John Kerry has what it takes to be president of the United States, and I intend to do everything in my power to make him president of the U.S. I want you to join me in doing this for our country, our America."
Edwards rose dramatically during his campaign after an unexpectedly strong second-place finish in Iowa. He won only a single state --- South Carolina, where he was born -- despite a string of strong second-place finishes.
He had been poised to withdraw on at least three previous election nights, beginning with South Carolina's primary a month ago, spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. But each week he found something in the returns encouraging enough to continue -- until Kerry won so many delegates Tuesday night.
Edwards' appealing campaign style and high positives should serve him well in the future, Democratic strategists suggest. If Bush were re-elected in November, Edwards could run again in 2008.
Edwards lost all 10 Super Tuesday contests. His advisers had hoped victories in Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota would carry him into four March 9 primaries in the South.
Edwards, 50, became a millionaire as a plaintiff's trial lawyer, making most of his money in medical malpractice cases. His 1998 election to the Senate was his first attempt at public office.
Former President Clinton called Edwards on Wednesday morning to applaud his decision and congratulate him for the way he conducted his campaign, Palmieri said.
To many who worked on his campaign for the past year, Edwards will remain a political hero.
"I would have loved to work in his White House," said Natalie Duggins, who interrupted her life as a college student to campaign for Edwards. "If he decides to do anything else in politics, I'll be there to support him."
Said fellow Edwards supporter Ellis Roberts: "I'm extraordinarily happy right now. I mean, the fight that we did is just incredible."