Editorial: Edwards can still fight on

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 30, 2008

John Edwards sounded like a man of his word when he said he was staying in the presidential race through the Democratic National Convention ó even after coming in third in his native South Carolina. So his withdrawal Wednesday came as a surprise.
It makes sense. Edwards has been battling two well-funded celebrity candidates determined to make history. It seemed like Bill Clinton vs. Oprah ó and now the Kennedy Camelot crew, too. Big forces are at work here, much bigger than health care proposals or votes about the war. Edwards said he was going to step aside “so that history can blaze its path,” a nod to those forces and the impossibility of stopping them. The only reason to stay in the race appeared to be as the candidate of people who won’t vote for a woman or a black person for president, which goes counter to what Edwards stands for. Timing has not been on his side.
But having Edwards in the race accomplished two things. First, he offered relief from the Clinton vs. Obama clash, which has been growing in intensity day by day and now will get really ugly. Imagine the South Carolina debate if Edwards had not been there to buffer the bickering between his two opponents and bring the discussion back to the issues.
Second, Edwards hammered on a theme the country cannot afford to forget: fighting poverty. He was the populist candidate, the non-celebrity who wanted to look out for the little guy. He brought this home by announcing both the beginning and the end of his candidacy in hurricane-stricken New Orleans, ground zero for this country’s failure to help its poorest citizens and their communities. Skeptics may consider this mere staging, but for what little time he had left in the spotlight, Edwards chose to have that light shine on a city much of the country would like to forget.
Here in his home state of North Carolina, Edwards inspires ambivalence. He has staunch supporters, for sure. But his quick turn from winning a seat in the Senate to having presidential aspirations made people wonder, and now they still don’t know what to make of him. He doesn’t have a lot of political history and has not become a party stalwart. He’s a puzzle.
Still, Edwards has helped move North Carolina forward in ways people might tend to forget. He unseated Lauch Faircloth, who was beginning to make Jesse Helms look progressive ó and North Carolina look prehistoric. And to a state that has neutered itself in presidential politics with a late primary and a predictable general election vote, he has brought national political recognition. John Edwards may or may not seek the presidency again ó who knows? But it’s safe to predict that he will continue the fight against poverty. North Carolina is a good place to start. Welcome home, John Edwards. Welcome home.