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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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After South Carolina, the choices become more difficult for Edwards. He could begin to hurt Obama as much as he hurts Clinton, particularly with some of those change-oriented voters who are disinclined to support Clinton.

Edwards has offended many Democrats with his candidacy. They question his authenticity and see his shift from optimism to anger as the sign of an opportunistic politician. He and his most loyal supporters argue that that's not the case, that the Edwards of 2008 is a reflection of a changed country and his and his wife's changed personal situation.

Edwards had hoped that a Clinton loss in New Hampshire would have effectively ended her candidacy, leaving him a chance to have a fight for the nomination with Obama over how best to change the political culture of Washington and the nation. Her victory robbed him of any real likelihood of that happening.

Clinton and Obama are committed to a fight for states and delegates through Feb. 5. After that, it's anybody's guess whether the race will be decided or headed for a war of attrition. But Edwards is not financially equipped to fight anything approaching a long war.

His aides always said that his only realistic hope for the nomination was to win Iowa, survive New Hampshire and then win Nevada and South Carolina. In a year that has proved prognosticators wrong, Edwards may think there is still a path for him. But against two opponents as skilled and as well-financed as Clinton and Obama, the space for an underfunded Edwards, particularly an Edwards who hasn't won a contest, diminishes rapidly.

No candidate in the heat of a campaign can see his or her way through these questions with any clarity. They are focused on the moment -- the next debate, the next ad, the next contest. That may be where Edwards is now.

But Edwards is someone who never stops thinking about strategy -- and he has a remarkable ability to analyze the state of play with a clear eye. That indicates he is thinking about what happens after South Carolina. If he concludes he cannot be the nominee, what will he conclude about the role he wants to play -- if any -- to influence the eventual outcome? That's why he should not be forgotten.

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