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The John Edwards Primary

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama both hope for their former opponent John Edwards's support. (AP.)

By Dan Balz
The John Edwards primary is now in full swing. Hillary Clinton made a clandestine visit to see her former rival last Thursday at his home in North Carolina to seek his support. Soon it will be Barack Obama's turn to make the pilgrimage to Tobacco Road. The Illinois senator ought to be ready for some serious conversation.

That Edwards is agonizing over the endorsement should be worrisome to Obama. Edwards, the scourge of special interests, should be easy pickings for the change candidate in the Democratic race, given all Edwards has said in criticism about Clinton over months of campaigning. But outward appearances suggest he is genuinely torn. An endorsement of Clinton would be a blow to Obama.

Whether Edwards will soon endorse in the Democratic race is not clear. But if he does, the decision is likely to generate as much media attention as Ted Kennedy's announcement that he was supporting Obama. Al Gore would top both in terms of instant impact, but there is no sign that the environmental oracle is ready to plunge back into the gritty world of presidential politics.

The apparent alliance between Obama and Edwards was clearest in the days just before the New Hampshire primary, when Edwards embraced Obama and chastised Clinton as an agent of the status quo. "We have a fundamental difference about the way you bring about change," he said of Obama at their debate three days before New Hampshire. "But both of us are powerful voices for change."

Edwards's split with Clinton began in earnest at the YearlyKos debate in Chicago last August, when he taunted her to join with him and Obama in rejecting contributions from Washington lobbyists. Not surprisingly, Clinton brushed aside his gambit. But when she went on to defend lobbyists as people too, the courtroom-trained Edwards pounced harder and their split seemed irrevocable.

From there until South Carolina, Edwards and Obama were in league against Clinton, while vying to become the alternative to the then-front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Through a series of debates, the two often operated as a tag team against Clinton. Only when the three met for the debate in Myrtle Beach, S.C., did Edwards begin to raise serious questions about Obama's commitment to tackling the corporate interests.

By that week, it was evident that Edwards, having failed to win a single contest, was on the brink of having to quit the race. Obama should have taken Edwards's criticism and hectoring at Myrtle Beach as a flashing yellow light that the former senator was no longer his reliable and trusted ally.

That debate was most notable for the nasty Clinton-Obama wrangling. But once past the fireworks of the first 45 minutes between the two front-runners, Edwards stepped in aggressively to challenge Obama. He questioned Obama on his many "present" votes in the Illinois Senate and drew sharp differences over Obama's health-care plan, which unlike Clinton's and Edwards's would not constitute universal coverage.

Edwards and Clinton have had several conversations since mid-January -- on the phone and in person. Their post-debate conversation in Myrtle Beach set off a buzz among Democratic operatives even before it had ended. By all accounts they have been friendly, substantive and respectful. The details of their meeting last week are being closely held, but there is no doubt that Clinton went to it well prepared. Obama should be similarly ready.

Edwards was often derided for being an inauthentic candidate who had remade himself since 2004 into an angry populist. But the former senator prided himself on offering a broad, substantive agenda and putting forward ideas ahead of his rivals, and that will be part of his evaluation of the two candidates.

He has clear differences with Obama on health care, which they have debated for months, and which may enter into his endorsement considerations. He has asked for and gotten a commitment from both Clinton and Obama to make eradicating poverty a central part of their agenda, but will be trying to decide which of his rivals is likely to deliver as president.

Beyond that, Edwards will be judging the two candidates on their readiness to be president -- based on his assessment of their toughness, their leadership skills, their capacity to get things done in office.

Given the attributes Obama has displayed throughout the campaign -- the energy and excitement he has generated, his generational appeal, his apparent appeal to Democrats, independents and even some Republicans -- an Edwards endorsement of Clinton would be an implicit statement that he believes she is more ready to be president.

Do endorsements really matter? It's easy to argue that, in light of Obama's loss in Massachusetts last week, the Kennedy endorsement meant little, but that is too narrow an interpretation. With every endorsement from an established Democratic politician, Obama's campaign takes on greater stature and strength. The same is likely if Edwards ends up supporting him.

But Obama cannot assume Edwards tilts naturally in his direction. He will have to earn that support. Big crowds and a string of weekend victories help him make the case that he can bring about the changes Edwards wants to see. But it's likely Edwards will be looking for more than that when the two meet soon.

Other politicians have said that Obama can be even more persuasive an advocate in his own behalf in face-to-face conversations than he is on the stump. He now has the opportunity to win over a potentially valuable ally as the campaign moves past the Potomac primaries to Wisconsin, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania -- if he can satisfy whatever doubts may be holding Edwards back.

By Web Politics Editor  |  February 11, 2008; 12:43 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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