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Edwards to Endorse Obama

Former Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) will endorse Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) tonight in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ending a long period of neutrality for the two-time presidential candidate and giving the Illinois senator another boost of momentum as he draws ever closer to the nomination.

The endorsement was confirmed by a source familiar with Edwards' thinking.

Edwards has long been courted by both Obama and Clinton as he built a considerable constituency during his two unsuccessful runs for president. Edwards' strength was among rural and working class voters -- Obama's weakest area of support to date in the primary.

Edwards had largely disappeared from the political scene since dropping from the race in late January amid money troubles and daunting odds of ousting Clinton and Obama from their perches in the top tier.

In the immediate aftermath of Edwards' decision to drop from the race, both Clinton and Obama made a pilgrimage to North Carolina to huddle with the former candidate and make their pitch for his support.

By all accounts, those meetings left Edwards genuinely undecided. Obama's message of change and his call to end the influence peddling in Washington were clearly an obvious fit for Edwards' sympathies, but he retained some lingering concerns about Obama's depth of experience. Clinton, on the other hand, had considerable experience but struggled to represent the sort of change that Edwards believed was necessary to win the nomination.

Rumors flew for months about Edwards's leaning although of late it had been expected that if he endorsed a candidate, it would be Obama.

Matt Bennett, a former Clinton Administration official, described Edwards as the "troubadour of the working class" and said the North Carolina senator's endorsement of Obama makes it "tougher for Clinton to make the case that working class Democrats can't [or] won't support Obama."

During his 2004 bid for president, Edwards focused his campaign message almost exclusively on middle-class and lower middle-class people -- insisting that his southern roots, his father's experience as a mill worker and his own up from the bootstraps success story uniquely positioned him to represent their interests in the White House.

Edwards's populism found root in Iowa as he managed a second-place finish in the state's caucuses despite being dramatically outspent by Clinton and Obama in the state. Edwards was unable to rekindle that magic in either Nevada or New Hampshire and, in his home state of South Carolina, his third-place finish in late January effectively ended his campaign.

Despite coming up short in two consecutive presidential elections, Edwards -- and his wife, Elizabeth -- remain beloved figures among the party's loose conglomeration of online activists -- known as the netroots -- as well as many within the liberal wing of the party.

Aside from the obvious demographic benefits an Edwards endorsement could have, his decision to throw his backing behind Obama also has symbolic import. Edwards is widely seen as one of the major party figures who had remained on the sidelines in the race between Clinton and Obama. That he has stepped in to the fray in hopes of, perhaps, bringing this race to an end should send a powerful signal to undecided superdelegates about the direction of the contest.

Former senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a major Obama backer, told CNN: "I think John Edwards is a tremendous national leader and obviously it's no seceret that we've been trying to get his support, his endorsement, his supporters, his counsel as we go through the balance of this campaign for a long period of time."

"All I know is that it's very, very important that as we go forwards, we unite this party," Daschle added. "John and Elizabeth Edwards have a tremendous following in our party. The more we can unite along with their leadership and their followership, the better off our party and the better off Barack Obama is going to be in November."

By Chris Cillizza  |  May 14, 2008; 5:35 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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Next: The Edwards Endorsement: What It Means

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