John Edwards went back on Wednesday to New Orleans, the city where a year ago he launched a populist campaign to make poverty an issue in American politics.
He did not arrive in triumph, but he certainly did not look or sound like a defeated candidate.
The news of the day — always blunt, and as such imprecise — was that Edwards ended his formal run for the Democratic presidential nomination where it began — in the impoverished city that was so battered both by Hurricane Katrina and the official neglect that came before and after that mighty storm.
And it was true that Edwards had suspended his candidacy.
But his campaign was far from finished, as the former senator from North Carolina made clear.
“Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for,” he told supporters who were still waving “John Edwards for President” posters. “Do not walk away from what’s possible, because it’s time for all of us, all of us together, to make the two Americas one.”
Promising to continue pressing the Democratic party to embrace economic justice themes, he told cheering supporters that, “We must do better if we want to live up to the promise of this country we love so much.”
The suddenly former candidate admitted that he was torn about his decision, suggesting that when backers in Minnesota had told him to keep fighting, he “almost reconsidered.”
The fact is that Edwards did not want to abandon the presidential race. He kept up an intense schedule of events in “Super Tuesday” states even after he secured credible but disappointing third-place finish in his native state of South Carolina’s Saturday primary.
But money was short — too short for the media buys necessary to compete in the television “air wars” that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are preparing to reach voters in the score of states that will vote February 5. Media attention was scant, and usually focused on the question of why he was staying in the race. And even sympathetic Democrats were starting to abandon Edwards — who is not expected to make an endorsement today but who never made much secret about his differences with the Clinton camp — for a surging Obama campaign.
Yet, Edwards pressed on in the days after Obama’s big win in South Carolina.
As late as Tuesday night, when Edwards won 14 percent of the vote and carried ten counties in Florida’s Democratic “beauty contest” primary, the former North Carolina senator was still on the trail. More than 1,000 union members and activists rallied for his populist call to action at a Carpenters union hall in St. Paul.
Edwards recalled the legacy of his late colleague in the Senate, Paul Wellstone. The Minnesota crowd cheered the memory of one Democrat who made fighting poverty central to his politics and the hope that another Democrat might yet carry the fight forward.
But Edwards recognized it was no longer possible to do that as a third-wheel presidential candidate.
So instead of flying from St. Paul to Fargo for a scheduled event anticipating the February 5 North Dakota caucuses, Edwards and his team turned their plane toward New Orleans.
In the city where he began running, Edwards announced that, “It is time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path.”
That was a reference to the virtual certainty that, with his exit, Democrats will now nominate the party’s first woman or first African-American candidate for president. But both Clinton and Obama made it clear that John Edwards, or at the very least the issues he raised, will be a part of that history.
“At a time when our politics is too focused on who’s up and who’s down, he made a nation focus again on who matters — the New Orleans child without a home, the West Virginia miner without a job, the families who live in that other America that is not seen or heard or talked about by our leaders in Washington,” declared Obama on Wednesday.
Clinton said, “John Edwards ended his campaign today in the same way he started it — by standing with the people who are too often left behind and nearly always left out of our national debate.”
But after that formality, the speech played out as what it had been billed: an anti-poverty address. Some of the lines were repeats from the stump speech. But, with their champion leaving the field of battle, there was a new poignancy to Edwards promise to the poor, the homeless, the unemployed and those without health care that “we will not forget you… we will not allow you to be forgotten.”
As he spoke, it became clear that, even if the Edwards candidacy is done, the Edwards campaign will continue. By virtue of the warmth toward him and his message that was so in evidence Wednesday, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate remains in a position to influence his party and his country to recognize and address the painful reality that there are “two Americas — one rich and one poor.”
It is, says Edwards, “the mission of my life.”