David Obey really did want to vote for John Edwards for president.

In fact, aside from the former candidate himself, there could be few better barometers than the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee for defining where “the Edwards vote” is headed now that his backers must choose between New York Senator Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

And Obey has made that choice.

“For eight long years, in extreme partisanship, George W. Bush has governed this country by dividing it,” the senior Democrat from Wisconsin explained in an email sent to this reporter after we spoke about the race Thursday. “(Bush) has pursued disastrous foreign and domestic policies and has stubbornly refused to listen to anyone’s views except those who march in lockstep with him. America desperately needs a new president who can reach across old barriers to form new alliances that can produce a new era of optimism and a healthier respect for the needs of others. I had originally supported John Edwards for President, but with his withdrawal I am voting for Barack Obama.”

Obey, who as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee is one of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill, is an economic populist of the old school. No Democrat was angrier about the tax cuts for the rich and the free-trade deals that defined the economic policies of the Bush administration, and few were more frustrated with the compromises of the Clinton administration that came before it.

Obey wants a Democratic president who will work with a Democratic Congress to forge economic policies that favor Main Streets in Wisconsin cities like Wausau, Superior and Ashland rather than Wall Street. For this congressman, the choices are about a lot more more than legislative maneuvers and political positioning. Obey’s one of the few really powerful people in Washington who knows the location of every union hall in his home state. And don’t get him started talking about trade and economic policies unless you are ready to listen to a lengthy discourse on how successive administrations have let down the factory workers and farmers of his northern Wisconsin district.

Edwards’ populist campaign struck a chord with Obey, and with a number of other old-school Democrats who have made economic concerns central to their tenures in Congress. They joined a number of key unions in backing the former senator from North Carolina.

But Edwards is now out of the race. The unions are making their moves: The Transport Workers Union, which represents 140,000 workers nationwide and has long been one of the savviest political players on economic issues, just announced that, “With Senator Edwards out of the race, our officers found it an easy decision to lend our support to the Obama campaign.”

And Obey says, “People will, and should, make their own choices, but I believe that, while both remaining candidates would make outstanding presidents, Senator Obama has the best chance of giving this country the new beginning it so desperately needs.”