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John Edwards: Spoiler, Surrogate or Surprise?

John Edwards making a pitch in South Carolina. (AP).

By Dan Balz
John Edwards is the forgotten man in the race for the Democratic nomination, but not an inconsequential candidate.

Edwards, the angry populist of Iowa who may become southern fried Democrat as the South Carolina primary unfolds, has a critical decision ahead. How long can or should he keep his candidacy going?

In a largely two-person race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, it's clear where Edwards's sentiments lie. If he can't be the nominee, he strongly prefers Obama to Clinton.

If there were any doubt before, his performance in the Jan. 5 New Hampshire debate answered that question definitively. It was Edwards who leaped to Obama's defense when Clinton raised doubts about him -- aggressively challenging the New York senator as a creature of a frightened status quo.

"I didn't hear these kind of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead," he said. "Now that she's not, we hear them. And any time you speak out -- any time you speak out for change, this is what happens."

Edwards has played that role before, although not in quite such an explicit way. Trained in the combat of the courtroom, he is a more natural debater than Obama -- and more naturally confrontational, too. He has used the debates effectively to keep himself in the thick of the Democratic dialogue even though he generally trails well behind Clinton and Obama in the polls.

Edwards put everything on the line in Iowa, a state that was a must-win contest for him. He was able to keep his campaign going largely because he managed to beat Clinton by a whisker for second place. The shift of a few votes would have reversed the order between the two and he would have been history.

His New Hampshire performance was far more disappointing. He and his wife, Elizabeth, had worked the state far harder than they did in 2004 and built an organization superior to that of four years ago. In the end, it did him little good and he finished a distant third. Still, he vowed to keep going.

"I want to be absolutely clear to all of you who have been devoted to this cause," he told supporters in New Hampshire last Tuesday night, "and I want to be clear to the 99 percent of Americans who have not yet had the chance to have their voices heard, that I am in this race to the convention, that I intend to be the nominee of my party."

That pledge notwithstanding, Edwards has two weeks to think about the future. He is certainly in the race through Nevada and South Carolina, the next two contests on the calendar, and at least one reason to keep going that long is that he is likely to be a help to Obama in the Palmetto State.

Obama and Clinton have competed heavily for the African American vote in South Carolina, and the Clinton campaign fears that Obama will now win the majority of that vote, perhaps a sizable majority.

Clinton's chances of winning would depend on the white vote, but as long as Edwards is running there, she would have to split that vote with him. That alone was one reason that, before Clinton unexpectedly won in New Hampshire, her advisers were seriously considering skipping the state.

After South Carolina, the choices become more difficult for Edwards. At that point, he could begin to hurt Obama as much as he hurts Clinton, particularly with some of those change-oriented voters who are disinclined to support Clinton.

Edwards has offended many Democrats with his candidacy. They question his authenticity and see his shift from optimism to anger as the sign of an opportunistic politician. He and his most loyal supporters argue that such is not the case, that the Edwards of 2008 is a reflection of a changed country and his and his wife's changed personal situation.

Edwards had hoped that a Clinton loss in New Hampshire would have effectively ended her candidacy, leaving him a last opportunity to have a fight for the nomination with Obama over how best to change the political culture of Washington and the nation. Her victory last Tuesday robbed him of any real likelihood of that happening.

Clinton and Obama are committed to a fight for states and delegates through Feb. 5. After that it's anybody's guess whether the race will be decided or headed for a war of attrition. But Edwards is not financially equipped to fight anything approaching a long war.

His aides always said that his only realistic hope for the nomination was to win Iowa, survive New Hampshire and then win Nevada and South Carolina. In a year that has proven all the prognosticators wrong, Edwards may think there is still a path for him. Who knows? But against two opponents as skilled and as well financed as Clinton and Obama, the space for an underfunded Edwards, particularly an Edwards who hasn't won a contest, diminishes rapidly.

No candidate in the heat of a campaign can see his or her way through these questions with any clarity. They are focused on the moment -- the next debate, the next ad, the next applause line, the next contest. That may be where Edwards is now.

But Edwards is someone who never stops thinking about strategy -- and he has a remarkable ability to step out of the moment and analyze the state of play with a clear eye. That tells me he is thinking about what happens after South Carolina. If he concludes he cannot be the nominee, what will he conclude about the role he wants to play -- if any -- to influence the eventual outcome? That's why he should not be forgotten.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 11, 2008; 1:40 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take , John Edwards , The Democrats  
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