Political News

Edwards Ends Presidential Bid

Posted January 30, 2008 9:02 a.m. EST
Updated January 30, 2008 8:09 p.m. EST

— Democrat John Edwards dropped out of the presidential race Wednesday in the same city where he started his campaign 13 months ago, saying he planned to continue to work for America's poor.

"It's time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path," the former North Carolina senator and two-time White House candidate said in an afternoon news conference. "This son of a mill worker is going to be just fine. Our job now is to make certain that America will be fine."

The decision came after Edwards lost the four states to hold nominating contests so far to rivals who stole the spotlight from the beginning – New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Still, the move came suddenly for many involved in the campaign. Edwards had announced two days ago that he had organizers in all 22 states holding primaries on "Super Tuesday" next week and that campaign donations continued to roll in online.

"It's surprising in that the campaign had been so clear in its intentions (but) not surprising if you look at the numbers," said David McLennan, a political science professor at Peace College in Raleigh. "The question always is: Where is John Edwards going to be a viable candidate? He's proven in the recent weeks that he's having a tough time competing against Obama and Clinton."

Edwards didn't immediately endorse either Clinton or Obama in what is now a two-person race for the Democratic nomination. But he said he extracted promises from each that they would carry on his fight to end poverty in America.

"Our Democratic Party will make history," he said. "We will be strong. We will be unified and, with our convictions and a little backbone, we will take back the White House in November and begin to create hope and opportunity for this country."

Clinton said Wednesday that Edwards called her to inform her about his decision.

Obama told reporters Edwards had exited the race in a "classy" way. "I think he's run a great campaign," said Obama, who aides said also spoke with Edwards Tuesday night and asked for his endorsement.

"(Edwards) spent a lifetime fighting to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the struggling, even when it wasn't popular to do or covered in the news," Obama said in a statement. "While his campaign may end today, the cause of their lives endures for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America."

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. Both Clinton and Obama would welcome Edwards' backing and the support of the 56 delegates he had collected.

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.

Elizabeth Edwards campaigned with her husband in Iowa, but she hasn't been seen since, even in neighboring South Carolina last week. As recently as two days ago, campaign officials said her health was fine, and she was only resting at home to get over a cold.

"We forget people in politics are real people," said Gary Pearce, a Democratic consultant who ran Edwards' successful Senate campaign a decade ago. "This is a guy (whose) wife is fighting cancer. They have young children. (It's a) long-shot campaign. It's hard work. It's no fun to lose week after week. At some point, you may reach a point where you just say, 'Let's go home.'"

Edwards made his announcement with his wife and three children at his side. He then went to work with Habitat for Humanity at a volunteer-fueled rebuilding project known as Musicians' Village.

With that, Edwards' campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago – with him 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.

"I began my presidential campaign to remind the country that we, as citizens and as a government, have a moral responsibility to each other," he said. "We must do better if we want to live up to the great promise of this country."

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 reined 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 Republican Mitt Romney echoed the call for an end to special interest politics in Washington.

Edwards called on his supporters Wednesday to continue fighting for the poor and forgotten nationwide.

"We have an American house to rebuild," he said. "Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for."

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.

Edwards made poverty the signature issue of both his presidential campaigns, and he led a four-day tour to highlight the issue in July. The tour was the first to focus on the plight of the poor since Robert F. Kennedy's trip 40 years earlier.

But 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.

At Edwards headquarters in Chapel Hill, two staffers debated on how best to answer the phones, saying "John Edwards for president" no longer seemed appropriate.