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Edwards's Next Act


Former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) speaks to the media after announcing that is he withdrawing from the presidential race on January 30, 2008 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Getty Images).

By Dan Balz
John Edwards's decision to suspend his campaign for the Democratic nomination leaves behind two important questions: Will he eventually endorse one of his rivals, and where will the Edwards vote go in upcoming primaries?

Aides said Wednesday morning Edwards will not make an immediate endorsement and in his departure speech in New Orleans he offered no hints about his thinking. Whom he might support -- should he choose to endorse in the near future -- is a question without an obvious answer.

Edwards appears to have little affection for Hillary Clinton. That has been obvious in most debates, but particularly beginning in Chicago last August at the YearlyKos convention. There he drew a bright line of distinction by challenging her to join him and Barack Obama in rejecting contributions from Washington lobbyists. When she declined and defended those lobbyists, he had an issue that he never relinquished.

Edwards ran a crusade against Washington special interests and the political culture that has created such a cozy relationship between money and power. Clinton, he argued, symbolizes that relationship. She was, in his line of argument, a member in good standing of the status quo politics that he said desperately needed changing.

In debate after debate, he led or helped carry the fight to Clinton. A natural debater from his days as a trial lawyer, Edwards enjoyed the prime-time combat of their joint encounters -- in a way that Obama never seemed to. The record is replete with quotations from Edwards denouncing Clinton's brand of politics. An endorsement of her would produce the most awkward press conference since John McCain grudgingly gave his support to George W. Bush in the spring of 2000.

Everything about Edwards's message suggests he and Obama are natural allies. As Edwards said in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and in the memorable debate in New Hampshire three days before that state's primary, voters want change and two candidates in the Democratic race offered it -- albeit with very different styles.

So it would be logical to assume that, if Edwards were to endorse, he likely would support the other change candidate in the race: Obama. But that is only one way to look at the choice he now faces.

Edwards has been in conversation with both Obama and Clinton over the past two weeks. How often and exactly what they discussed has been the subject of rumor and speculation but not much hard detail. Some reports suggested he was looking to make a deal with one of them, that he was interested in a cabinet post in an Obama or Clinton administration.

Aides said Wednesday that in his conversations with Clinton and Obama on Tuesday, he asked for and was given commitments that each would make poverty a more central part of their campaign messages and of their agendas, should they become president. But those were as easy for Clinton and Obama to agree to as they were for Edwards to request.

Whether there is anything more explicit in Edwards's discussions with Clinton and Obama will have to await later accounts. He is a hard-headed politician and a man used to making deals. It would be no surprise to learn that a possible endorsement could come after some understanding of a future role.

Edwards is hard-headed in another way, one that could lead him to endorse Clinton, improbable as that might seem given the way he has run his campaign. Over the course of the past year, Edwards has gotten to know Clinton and Obama extremely well.

He has shared stages at debates repeatedly and spent time in proximity to them in holding rooms back stage. He has been able to take their measure -- their intellect, their leadership skills, their toughness, their readiness to be president. Only Edwards and his wife Elizabeth know how he truly assesses his two rivals.

Until recently he seemed aligned with Obama in the effort to defeat Clinton. But at the South Carolina debate last week, he suddenly turned against Obama, challenging him in a way that suggests he questions whether Obama is truly prepared to stand up to the special interests in Washington. He may not think Clinton will necessarily bring the kind of change to Washington that he has advocated, but he probably does not doubt her overall toughness.

Given all that, an endorsement of Obama still would seem the more likely course, but an endorsement of Clinton would not be a total surprise -- if Elizabeth Edwards agrees.

Where Edwards's vote might go is equally puzzling. I e-mailed Democratic pollster Mark Mellman after the news of Edwards's decision had come out and asked him where voters attracted to Edwards might now go. "Honest answer is its not clear," he replied.

He said there is an assumption that Clinton is no voter's second choice, that those who already are not supporting her made a decision early on that they never would. If true, that would mean Obama and his change message would pick up the biggest portion of the Edwards vote. But there is some polling data, Mellman said, showing that more Edwards supports prefer Clinton over Obama as their second choice.

In South Carolina, Edwards took white voters away from Clinton. Mellman also believes Edwards's decline in New Hampshire helped Clinton win a surprise victory.

Other strategists said Wednesday that there will not be a consistent pattern to the distribution of the Edwards vote. In Southern states next week, they said, Clinton will certainly benefit from the absence of Edwards. Among progressive Democrats in a states like California and Minnesota, however, Obama may be the beneficiary of Edwards's decision to suspend his candidacy.

John Edwards ended his campaign where it began a few days after Christmas 2006 -- in New Orleans, the city that came to symbolize his commitment to make poverty the central issue of his candidacy. He led the debate on other issues as well. He was the first to put out a plan for universal health care and he sharpened the debate about the about the role of special interests in Washington.

But his was an improbable campaign from the start, given the odds of anyone defeating both Clinton and Obama. Realistically, his hopes ended in Iowa, where he needed to win but finished second. Defeat in New Hampshire persuaded his wife Elizabeth that there was no viable road to the nomination. Nevada delivered the most disappointing result -- he ended with just four percent. South Carolina sealed his fate.

Now he is out. But he may have one more act in this drama.

By Web Politics Editor  |  January 30, 2008; 2:06 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Dan Balz's Take , Hillary Rodham Clinton , John Edwards  
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