Presidential field narrows and intensifies campaigns

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 | 9:57 p.m. CST; updated 2:53 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — With Democrat John Edwards and Republican Rudolph Giuliani retreating to the sidelines, the presidential nomination battles narrowed to a pair of head-to-head contests Wednesday as the remaining candidates dug in for five days of intensive campaigning before a critical Super Tuesday showdown next week.

Giuliani, who led the national Republican polls for much of last year only to see his support plummet in the opening weeks of the primary and caucus season, folded his campaign and immediately endorsed Sen. John McCain of Arizona at a joint press conference here hours before the 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.” McCain supporters hinted that an endorsement from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger could come within days.

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 Ninth Ward in New Orleans that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

“It is time for me to step aside so history can blaze its path,” Edwards told supporters.

Edwards, however, said nothing about an endorsement of either Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York or Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, and advisers said he had no imminent plans to do so.

Edwards’ departure left Clinton and Obama facing a potentially protracted contest that could extend past Super Tuesday to a string of 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 Sen. John McCain of Arizona, coming off his victory in Florida on Tuesday, determined to close out the challenge from former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who finished fourth in Florida, still poses a potential obstacle to Romney, especially in many of the southern primaries. Rep. Ron Paul, meanwhile, has struggled to grow his support beyond a dogged but small anti-establishment constituency.

While both 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 hop-scotched across the Feb. 5 landscape on their way to their own forum Thursday.

Obama, after spending Tuesday in the Kansas town where his grandparents lived, headed to Denver for a rally and later 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 Americans can become one.”

Clinton campaigned Wednesday in Arkansas and Georgia. After her landslide loss in South Carolina on Saturday, Clinton focused on African-American voters, stopping to greet mostly black patrons at a Little Rock diner and then speaking 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 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” following news that he had suspended his bid for the presidency. But she said she had not asked him 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 told reporters 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 Edwards’s decision became public. The former North Carolina senator has been in contact with both Clinton and Obama in the past 10 days in a series of private conversations that aides were reluctant to characterize Wednesday.

Edwards has aligned himself with Obama as one of the two change-oriented candidates in the Democratic race and at times 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 likely will 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,” Obama’s communications director Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling with the campaign. “If Edwards is not taking those voters anymore they’ve got a great home with our campaign. So we’ll be beneficiary of more voters going to us than to Clinton.”

But there is evidence that Clinton may profit from Edwards’s withdrawal. One Edwards adviser, who asked not to be identified in order to speak candidly, said Clinton may pick up support in southern states that otherwise might have gone to Edwards, while Obama could benefit from support from liberal Democrats in states like California or Minnesota.

There is polling data that suggests Clinton is the favored second choice for many Edwards supporters, according to Mark Mellman, a Democratic pollster. “At the end of the day I don’t think Edwards’ withdrawal is going to be decisive for one or the other,” he said. “I think she stands to gain more than Obama does, but at the margins.”

In the GOP race, McCain and Giuliani are natural allies and the former mayor’s endorsement was no surprise. As he pointed out at their press conference, he as much as endorsed McCain during a debate last fall, saying if he had not entered the race he likely would have been for the Arizona senator.

Giuliani will 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 coalition that now exists.

Romney advisers see an opportunity to draw a series of bright distinctions that will highlight ideological differences between the two as well as casting the race as outsider versus insider and future versus past.

“That is the contrast and over the next seven days we have to make that case,” said Kevin Madden, Romney’s press secretary.

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