Edwards Exacts Pledge as He Leaves

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 30 -- It was here in the devastated Ninth Ward that John Edwards launched his campaign for president a year ago, and it was here Wednesday that he ended it, vowing that his quest for economic justice would be carried forward by his fellow Democrats.

Standing in front of a Habitat for Humanity home-building project far from the pre-Mardi Gras parties downtown, Edwards said that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama "have both pledged to me and, more importantly, through me to America, that they will make ending poverty central to their campaign for the presidency. This is the cause of my life, and I now have their commitment to engage in this cause."

Edwards was joined onstage by his three children, as well as his wife, Elizabeth, who had virtually disappeared from the campaign trail after her husband's setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire. After failing to gain traction in the race, John Edwards was criticized by some for not dropping out to spend more time with his wife, who has cancer.

For the better part of his 12-minute speech, Edwards shared grim tales of America's least fortunate -- children going to bed with coats on because their parents couldn't afford to pay for heat, a man born with a cleft palate who couldn't get surgery until he was 50, and house after house in foreclosure in Cleveland.

On his way to his news conference, Edwards said he stopped under a bridge where 100 to 200 homeless people sleep every night. "You won't forget us, will you?" he quoted one woman as asking.

Again and again in the campaign, Edwards reminded voters that he was the "son of a millworker" and pledged to fight for the poor and forgotten. But early on, Edwards's focus on the poor was muddied by tales of his personal good fortune. News stories told of his $400 haircuts, of an ostentatious North Carolina home and of his work for a hedge fund.

Generally, though, news coverage was hard to come by in a race that featured Clinton, who would be the country's first woman president, and Obama, who would be its first African American president.

"When the press wants to cover a two-person race, it's very tough for the third candidate," said senior adviser Joe Trippi, as he stood in a field awaiting Edwards's speech. "To break through in that situation, you have to get edgy, get harsher, be more strident -- and we did, and it would work for a few days, and then the media would turn their heads the other way.

"What were we supposed to do, set ourselves on fire?"

The decision to quit was "sort of floating around" for a few weeks, Trippi said, but "not in earnest until Monday or Tuesday." The campaign agonized over the decision, as many had come to think of their effort as a moral crusade as much as a presidential campaign, Trippi said.

"This really was about fighting for the voiceless," Trippi said. "It wasn't about him."

Campaign officials initially told reporters on Tuesday afternoon to expect a major speech in which Edwards would call for Americans to commit to fighting poverty.

After dropping out of the race, Edwards, Elizabeth and their children worked briefly with the Habitat crews, and then they were gone.

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