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ANALYSIS

Edwards Will Face a Moment of Truth After South Carolina Primary

John Edwards says he will stay in the race until the convention, but he does not have the finances for a long nomination battle.
John Edwards says he will stay in the race until the convention, but he does not have the finances for a long nomination battle. (By Eric Thayer -- Getty Images)
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By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 12, 2008

John Edwards is the forgotten man in the race for the Democratic nomination, but he's not an inconsequential candidate.

Edwards, the angry populist of Iowa who may become a 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.

If there were any doubt, his performance in the Jan. 5 New Hampshire debate answered that question definitively. Edwards 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 kinds of attacks from Senator Clinton when she was ahead," he said. "Now that she's not, we hear them. And anytime you speak out -- anytime you speak out for change, this is what happens."

Edwards has played that role before, although not quite so explicitly. 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 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 said 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, she would have to split it. That alone was one reason that, before Clinton unexpectedly won in New Hampshire, her advisers were seriously considering skipping the state.


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