NEW ORLEANS — Democrat John Edwards bowed out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination on Wednesday, saying it was time to step aside "so that history can blaze its path" in a campaign now left to Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
"With our convictions and a little backbone we will take back the White House in November,'' said Edwards, ending his second campaign in a hurricane-ravaged section of New Orleans where he began it more than a year ago.
Edwards said Clinton and Obama had both pledged 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," he said before a small group of supporters. He was joined by his wife Elizabeth and his three children, Cate, Emma Claire and Jack.
It was the second time Edwards sought the Democratic presidential nomination. Four years ago he was the vice presidential running mate on a ticket headed by John Kerry.
Four years later, he waged a spirited, underfunded race on a populist note, pledging to represent the powerless against the corporate interests.
He finished second in the Iowa caucuses that led off the campaign, but he was quickly overshadowed — a white man in a race against the former first lady and a 46-year-old black man, each bent on making history.
Edwards said that on his way to making his campaign-ending statement, he drove by a highway underpass where several homeless people live. He stopped to talk, he said, and as he was leaving, one of them asked him never to forget them and their plight.
"Well I say to her and I say to all those who are struggling in this country, we will never forget you. We will fight for you. We will stand up for you," he said, pledging to continue his campaign-long effort to end what he frequently said was "two Americas," one for the powerful, the other for the rest.
The former North Carolina senator did not immediately endorse either Clinton, seeking to become the first female president, or Obama, the strongest black candidate in history.
Both of them praised Edwards — and immediately began courting his supporters.
"Particularly during this campaign he has made poverty a centerpiece of his candidacy and it needs to be on top of the list of American priorities. ... I want to wish John and Elizabeth well and thank him for running a great campaign that was really important for millions of Americans,'' Clinton told reporters.
"John Edwards ended his campaign today in the same way he started it — by standing with the people who are too often left behind and nearly always left out of our national debate,'' Clinton said.
Obama, too, praised Edwards and his wife. At a rally in Denver, he said the couple has "always believed deeply that two Americans can become one, and that our country can rally around this common purpose,'' Obama said. "So while his campaign may have ended, this cause lives on for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America."
Edwards, trudging through mud toward a Habitat for Humanity House he was to help work on, told reporters he would meet again with Clinton and Obama before deciding whether to make an endorsement. He set no timetable for deciding whether to endorse either candidate.
The impact of Edwards' decision will be felt in one week's time, when Democrats hold primaries and caucuses across 22 states, with 1,681 delegates at stake.
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.
Edwards amassed 56 national convention delegates, most of whom will be free to support either Obama or Clinton.
As expected, Edwards said he was suspending his campaign rather than ending it, but aides said that was simply legal terminology so that he can continue to receive federal matching funds for his campaign donations.
An immediate impact of Edwards' withdrawal will be six additional delegates for Obama, giving him a total of 187, and four more for Clinton, giving her 253. A total of 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.
Edwards won 26 delegates in the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina contests. Under party rules, 10 of those delegates will be automatically dispersed among Obama and Clinton, based on their vote totals in those respective contests. The remaining 16 remain pledged to Edwards, meaning his campaign will have a say in naming them.
Three superdelegates — mainly party and elected officials who automatically attend the convention and can support whomever they choose — had already switched from Edwards to Obama before news of Edwards' withdrawal from the race.
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.
The campaign ended as 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' last primary was in his home state of South Carolina last week. He finished a poor third, wining only his home county, his victory in the 2004 race a distant memory.
Thank you all very much. We're very proud to be back here.
During the spring of 2006, I had the extraordinary experience of bringing 700 college kids here to New Orleans to work. These are kids who gave up their spring break to come to New Orleans to work, to rehabilitate houses, because of their commitment as Americans, because they believed in what was possible, and because they cared about their country.
I began my presidential campaign here to remind the country that we, as citizens and as a government, have a moral responsibility to each other, and what we do together matters. We must do better, if we want to live up to the great promise of this country that we all love so much.
It is appropriate that I come here today. It's time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path. We do not know who will take the final steps to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but what we do know is that our Democratic Party will make history. We will be strong, we will be unified, and with our convictions and a little backbone we will take back the White House in November and we'll create hope and opportunity for this country.
This journey of ours began right here in New Orleans. It was a December morning in the Lower Ninth Ward when people went to work, not just me, but lots of others went to work with shovels and hammers to help restore a house that had been destroyed by the storm.
We joined together in a city that had been abandoned by our government and had been forgotten, but not by us. We knew that they still mourned the dead, that they were still stunned by the destruction, and that they wondered when all those cement steps in all those vacant lots would once again lead to a door, to a home, and to a dream.
We came here to the Lower Ninth Ward to rebuild. And we're going to rebuild today and work today, and we will continue to come back. We will never forget the heartache and we'll always be here to bring them hope, so that someday, one day, the trumpets will sound in Musicians' Village, where we are today, play loud across Lake Ponchartrain, so that working people can come marching in and those steps once again can lead to a family living out the dream in America.
We sat with poultry workers in Mississippi, janitors in Florida, nurses in California.
We listened as child after child told us about their worry about whether we would preserve the planet.
We listened to worker after worker say “the economy is tearing my family apart."
We walked the streets of Cleveland, where house after house was in foreclosure.
And we said, "We're better than this. And economic justice in America is our cause."
And we spent a day, a summer day, in Wise, Virginia, with a man named James Lowe, who told us the story of having been born with a cleft palate. He had no health care coverage. His family couldn't afford to fix it. And finally some good Samaritan came along and paid for his cleft palate to be fixed, which allowed him to speak for the first time. But they did it when he was 50 years old. His amazing story, though, gave this campaign voice: universal health care for every man, woman and child in America. That is our cause.
And we do this -- we do this for each other in America. We don't turn away from a neighbor in their time of need. Because every one of us knows that what -- but for the grace of God, there goes us. The American people have never stopped doing this, even when their government walked away, and walked away it has from hardworking people, and, yes, from the poor, those who live in poverty in this country.
For decades, we stopped focusing on those struggles. They didn't register in political polls, they didn't get us votes and so we stopped talking about it. I don't know how it started. I don't know when our party began to turn away from the cause of working people, from the fathers who were working three jobs literally just to pay the rent, mothers sending their kids to bed wrapped up in their clothes and in coats because they couldn't afford to pay for heat.
We know that our brothers and sisters have been bullied into believing that they can't organize and can't put a union in the workplace. Well, in this campaign, we didn't turn our heads. We looked them square in the eye and we said, "We see you, we hear you, and we are with you. And we will never forget you." And I have a feeling that if the leaders of our great Democratic Party continue to hear the voices of working people, a proud progressive will occupy the White House.
Now, I've spoken to both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama. They 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.
And more importantly, they have pledged to me that as President of the United States they will make ending poverty and economic inequality central to their Presidency. This is the cause of my life and I now have their commitment to engage in this cause.
And I want to say to everyone here, on the way here today, we passed under a bridge that carried the interstate where 100 to 200 homeless Americans sleep every night. And we stopped, we got out, we went in and spoke to them.
There was a minister there who comes every morning and feeds the homeless out of her own pocket. She said she has no money left in her bank account, she struggles to be able to do it, but she knows it’s the moral, just and right thing to do. And I spoke to some of the people who were there and as I was leaving, one woman said to me, “You won’t forget us, will you? Promise me you won’t forget us.” Well, I say to her and I say to all of those who are struggling in this country, we will never forget you. We will fight for you. We will stand up for you.
But I want to say this -- I want to say this because it’s important. With all of the injustice that we’ve seen, I can say this, America’s hour of transformation is upon us. It may be hard to believe when we have bullets flying in Baghdad and it may be hard to believe when it costs $58 to fill your car up with gas. It may be hard to believe when your school doesn’t have the right books for your kids. It’s hard to speak out for change when you feel like your voice is not being heard.
But I do hear it. We hear it. This Democratic Party hears you. We hear you, once again. And we will lift you up with our dream of what’s possible.
One America, one America that works for everybody.
One America where struggling towns and factories come back to life because we finally transformed our economy by ending our dependence on oil.
One America where the men who work the late shift and the women who get up at dawn to drive a two-hour commute and the young person who closes the store to save for college. They will be honored for that work.
One America where no child will go to bed hungry because we will finally end the moral shame of 37 million people living in poverty.
One America where every single man, woman and child in this country has health care.
One America with one public school system that works for all of our children.
One America that finally brings this war in Iraq to an end. And brings our service members home with the hero’s welcome that they have earned and that they deserve.
Today, I am suspending my campaign for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency.
But I want to say this to everyone: with Elizabeth, with my family, with my friends, with all of you and all of your support, this son of a millworker’s gonna be just fine. Our job now is to make certain that America will be fine.
And I want to thank everyone who has worked so hard – all those who have volunteered, my dedicated campaign staff who have worked absolutely tirelessly in this campaign.
And I want to say a personal word to those I’ve seen literally in the last few days – those I saw in Oklahoma yesterday, in Missouri, last night in Minnesota – who came to me and said don’t forget us. Speak for us. We need your voice. I want you to know that you almost changed my mind, because I hear your voice, I feel you, and your cause it our cause. Your country needs you – every single one of you.
All of you who have been involved in this campaign and this movement for change and this cause, we need you. It is in our hour of need that your country needs you. Don’t turn away, because we have not just a city of New Orleans to rebuild. We have an American house to rebuild.
This work goes on. It goes on right here in Musicians’ Village. There are homes to build here, and in neighborhoods all along the Gulf. The work goes on for the students in crumbling schools just yearning for a chance to get ahead. It goes on for day care workers, for steel workers risking their lives in cities all across this country. And the work goes on for two hundred thousand men and women who wore the uniform of the United States of America, proud veterans, who go to sleep every night under bridges, or in shelters, or on grates, just as the people we saw on the way here today. Their cause is our cause.
Their struggle is our struggle. Their dreams are our dreams.
Do not turn away from these great struggles before us. Do not give up on the causes that we have fought for. Do not walk away from what’s possible, because it’s time for all of us, all of us together, to make the two Americas one.
Thank you. God bless you, and let’s go to work. Thank you all very much.