Democrat John Edwards is exiting the presidential race Wednesday, ending a scrappy underdog bid in which he steered his rivals toward progressive ideals while grappling with family hardship that roused voters' sympathies, The Associated Press has learned.
Edwards, a two-time White House candidate notified a close circle of senior advisers that he planned to make the announcement at a 1 PM EST event in New Orleans that had been billed as a speech on poverty, according to two aides. The decision came after Edwards lost the four states to hold nominating contests so far to rivals who stole the spotlight from the beginning - Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
Hillary Rodham Clinton says John Edwards called her to let her know he was bowing out of the race for the White House.
Edwards' decision to drop out could be a boost to the New York senator. A recent Associated Press-Yahoo poll suggests four out of 10 Edwards supporters will switch over to the Clinton camp, compared to a quarter who say they prefer Barack Obama.
Both Clinton and Obama would welcome Edwards' backing and the support of the 56 delegates he has collected. But, Edwards has no immediate plans to endorse either of them.
Obama heaped praise on Edwards, saying he has "spent a lifetime fighting to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the struggling, even when it wasn't popular to do." Aides say Obama asked for Edwards' endorsement last night.
The former North Carolina senator will not immediately endorse either candidate in what is now a two-person race for the Democratic nomination, said one adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the announcement. Clinton said Wednesday that Edwards called her to inform her about his decision.
Obama told reporters Edwards had exited the race in a "classy" way. "I think he's run a great campaign," said Obama, who aides said also spoke with Edwards Tuesday night and asked for his endorsement.
In a statement from his campaign, Obama said Edwards "spent a lifetime fighting to give voice to the voiceless and hope to the struggling, even when it wasn't popular to do or covered in the news."
"While his campaign may end today, the cause of their lives endures for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America," the statement said.
Four in 10 Edwards supporters said their second choice in the race is Clinton, while a quarter prefer Obama, according to an Associated Press-Yahoo poll conducted late this month. Both Clinton and Obama would welcome Edwards' backing and the support of the 56 delegates he had collected.
Edwards waged a spirited top-tier campaign against the two better-funded rivals, even as he dealt with the stunning blow of his wife's recurring cancer diagnosis. In a dramatic news conference last March, the couple announced that the breast cancer that she thought she had beaten had returned, but they would continue the campaign.
Their decision sparked a debate about family duty and public service. But Elizabeth Edwards remained a forceful advocate for her husband, and she was often surrounded at campaign events by well-wishers and emotional survivors cheering her on.
Edwards planned to announce his campaign was ending with his wife and three children at his side. Then he planned to work with Habitat for Humanity at the volunteer-fueled rebuilding project Musicians' Village, the adviser said.
With that, Edwards' campaign will end the way it began 13 months ago - with the candidate pitching in to rebuild lives in a city still ravaged by Hurricane Katrina. Edwards embraced New Orleans as a glaring symbol of what he described as a Washington that didn't hear the cries of the downtrodden.
Edwards burst out of the starting gate with a flurry of progressive policy ideas - he was the first to offer a plan for universal health care, the first to call on Congress to pull funding for the war, and he led the charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and need to be reigned in.
The ideas were all bold and new for Edwards personally as well, making him a different candidate than the moderate Southerner who ran in 2004 while still in his first Senate term. But the themes were eventually adopted by other Democratic presidential candidates - and even a Republican, Mitt Romney, echoed the call for an end to special interest politics in Washington.
Edwards' rise to prominence in politics came amid just one term representing North Carolina in the Senate after a career as a trial attorney that made him millions. He was on Al Gore's short list for vice president in 2000 after serving just two years in office. He ran for president in 2004, and after he lost to John Kerry, the nominee picked him as a running mate.
Elizabeth Edwards first discovered a lump in her breast in the final days of that losing campaign. Her battle against the disease caused her husband to open up about another tragedy in their lives - the death of their teenage son Wade in a 1996 car accident. The candidate barely spoke of Wade during his 2004 campaign, but he offered his son's death to answer questions about how he could persevere when his wife could die.
Edwards made poverty the signature issue of both his presidential campaigns, and he led a four day tour to highlight the issue in July. The tour was the first to focus on the plight of the poor since Robert F. Kennedy's trip 40 years earlier.
But even as Obama and Clinton collected astonishing amounts of money that dwarfed his fundraising effort, Edwards maintained a loyal following in the first voting state of Iowa that made him a serious contender. He came in second to Obama in Iowa, an impressive feat of relegating Clinton to third place, before coming in third in the following three contests.
The loss in South Carolina was especially hard because it was where he was born and he had won the state in 2004.
At Edwards headquarters in Chapel Hill, N.C., two staffers debated on how best to answer the phones, saying "John Edwards for president" no longer seemed appropriate.