By Dan Balz and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 31, 2008
SIMI VALLEY, Calif., Jan. 30 -- The presidential nomination battles narrowed to a pair of head-to-head contests Wednesday as Democrat John Edwards and Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani retreated to the sidelines, while the remaining candidates dug in for five days of intensive campaigning before a Super Tuesday showdown next week.
Giuliani led the national Republican polls for much of last year, but his support plummeted in the opening weeks of the primary-caucus season. He folded his campaign Wednesday and immediately endorsed Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) at a joint news conference here hours before last night's GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
"John McCain is the most qualified candidate to be the next commander in chief of the United States," Giuliani said with McCain at his side. "He is an American hero, and America could use heroes in the White House. He's a man of honor and integrity, and you can underline both." Two McCain advisers said that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger will endorse the senator Thursday.
McCain and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney clashed repeatedly during the debate. McCain attacked Romney's economic record in Massachusetts, and Romney questioned whether McCain is a true conservative. Their sharpest exchange came over Iraq and whether Romney had called for secret timetables for withdrawing troops. Romney angrily accused McCain of not telling the truth, and McCain accused Romney of lacking the courage to support President Bush's troop increase until others had rallied around it.
On the Democratic side, Edwards, whose angry populism and focus on poverty made him a distinctive voice in the Democratic race, ended his candidacy where it began, in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. "It is time for me to step aside so history can blaze its path," he told supporters.
Edwards said nothing about an endorsement of either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), and advisers said he has no imminent plans to do so.
Edwards's departure left Clinton and Obama facing a potentially protracted contest that could extend past Super Tuesday to primaries and caucuses stretching into March or beyond. The two Democrats will meet for their first one-on-one debate in Los Angeles on Thursday night.
The Republican race could reach an effective conclusion in Tuesday's balloting, with McCain, coming off his victory in Florida on Tuesday, determined to close out the challenge from former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who finished fourth in Florida, still poses a potential obstacle to Romney, especially in many of the Southern primaries on Tuesday. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), meanwhile, has struggled to expand his support beyond a dogged but small anti-establishment constituency.
While the Democratic and Republican races are now essentially two-person contests, their political contours are markedly different. Clinton and Obama are in a frequently nasty personal fight, but not one that reflects deep ideological divisions or, as yet, threatens to leave the party badly divided once it is over.
Republicans on the other hand, see the prospect of a clear fracture in their coalition as a result of the nomination contest. McCain is winning important primaries, but he is doing so without the support of the party's conservative or religious base.
"The base has got to take a look at this and decide what it wants," said a strategist who has worked on behalf of another candidate. "Even McCain's people would tell you they are close to finishing the job [of winning the nomination] politically, but ideologically they're not."
As the Republicans gathered in Simi Valley for their second debate of the campaign at the Reagan Library, Clinton and Obama hopscotched across states voting on Feb. 5 on their way to their own forum on Thursday.
Obama, after spending Tuesday in the Kansas town where his grandparents lived, headed to Denver for a rally. Later, he went to Arizona, where he enjoys the support of Gov. Janet Napolitano but nonetheless faces stiff competition from Clinton.
Obama offered effusive praise for Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, as he campaigned Wednesday. "John has spent a lifetime fighting to give a voice to the voiceless and hope for the struggling," he told a crowd of 9,000 gathered inside the University of Denver basketball arena.
"At a time when our politics is too focused on who's up and who's down, he's consistently made us focus on who matters. . . .," he added. "John and Elizabeth Edwards believe deeply that two Americas can become one."
During his Denver speech, Obama used tough language to draw a contrast with Clinton and argued that she would unite Republicans against her rather than uniting the country.
"I know it is tempting -- after another presidency by a man named George Bush -- to simply turn back the clock, and to build a bridge back to the 20th century," he said in a paraphrase of President Bill Clinton's 1996 reelection slogan. "There are those who will tell us that our party should nominate someone who is more practiced in the art of pursuing power, that it's not yet our turn or our time. . . . It is time for a new generation of leadership."
Clinton's campaign e-mailed reporters, calling Obama's speech an "angry screed."
Clinton campaigned in Arkansas and Georgia. After her landslide loss in South Carolina on Saturday, Clinton focused on African American voters. She stopped to greet patrons, most of them black, at a Little Rock diner and then spoke to the National Baptist Conventions in Atlanta in the late afternoon.
Clinton, calling for "change with justice," invoked biblical phrases as she promised to end what she called the Bush administration's "epidemic of indifference." Leaders, she said, must "deliver real solutions to the real problems that our people are facing." That was about as harsh as Clinton got, striking a largely positive tone and dropping some of her more pointed lines aimed at Obama.
Clinton thanked Edwards and his wife "for their years of public service." But she said she had not asked for his endorsement.
"I think it is up to Senator Edwards to decide how he's going to participate, if at all, in the upcoming campaign," she said after an event at North Little Rock High School.
The question of an Edwards endorsement coursed through the Democratic campaign in the hours after word of his decision became public. The former senator from North Carolina has been in contact with Clinton and Obama in the past 10 days in private conversations that aides were reluctant to characterize.
Edwards has aligned himself with Obama as one of the two change-oriented candidates in the Democratic race. At times, he has harshly criticized Clinton as a politician who symbolizes the cozy relationship in Washington between corporate power and politicians who seek their money.
That led to speculation that, if he decides to endorse, he will probably throw his support to Obama. But Democrats close to Edwards cautioned that the choice may not be so evident or easy. Edwards has come to know both candidates well through their joint appearances over the past year and sees strengths and weaknesses in both, according to Democrats close to the former senator.
"You've got two candidates up to this point that have made change their theme -- Edwards and Obama," Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director, told reporters traveling with the campaign. "If Edwards is not taking those voters anymore, they've got a great home with our campaign."
But there is evidence that Clinton may profit from Edwards's withdrawal. One Edwards adviser, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Clinton may pick up support in Southern states that otherwise might have gone to Edwards, while Obama could benefit from liberal Democrats' support in such states as California or Minnesota.
In the GOP race, Giuliani could help McCain nail down victories in primaries in the Northeast -- New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware -- and their big baskets of delegates. But he will do little to help McCain bridge the divide within the GOP.
Romney's advisers see an opportunity to highlight ideological differences between the two and to cast the race as outsider vs. insider and future vs. past.
"That is the contrast, and over the next seven days we have to make that case," said Kevin Madden, Romney's press secretary.
Kornblut, traveling with Clinton, reported from Arkansas and Georgia. Alec MacGillis, traveling with Obama, reported from Colorado and Arizona.