Democrat John Edwards withdrew from the presidential race this afternoon, returning to the hurricane-ravaged neighborhood in New Orleans where he launched his second bid in December 2006 and emphasizing the issue -- poverty in America -- that animated his campaign.
"It's time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path," he said with his wife Elizabeth, who is battling cancer, and his three children at his side. "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."
Edwards said he listened to Americans across the country talk about their problems and their need for economic justice.
"We will never forget the heartache and we will always be here to bring hope," Edwards said against a backdrop of houses being rehabilitated in the Ninth Ward.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator who was John F. Kerry's running mate in 2004, did not endorse either of his rivals, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, whose candidacies eclipsed his.
Edwards did say that both had pledged to him to make ending poverty a central cause of their campaigns and, if they're elected, their presidencies.
Edwards's supporters are expected to divide between the two, though he has generally been more critical of Clinton as a "corporate Democrat" than of Obama, with whom he shares a message of change.
"His cause lives on," Obama told supporters in Denver, urging them to applaud John and Elizabeth Edwards.
He issued a statement praising Edwards, who he said has "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. At a time when our politics is too focused on who's up and who's down, he made a nation focus again on who matters -- the New Orleans child without a home, the West Virginia miner without a job, the families who live in that other America that is not seen or heard or talked about by our leaders in Washington."
Clinton issued a statement saying that Edwards ran with "compassion and conviction" and championed people in need.
After the speech, Edwards worked on a Habitat for Humanity house. Edwards has made repeated visits to New Orleans, which was devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. In the spring of 2006 Edwards led more than 700 college students on an alternative spring break to help rebuild a Crescent City neighborhood and in November he joined supporters on a project to rebuild musicians’ housing.The speech had originally been billed as a "major policy address on poverty."
"In recent days and weeks, national discussion of important issues like ending poverty has given way to sniping and personal attacks between the two front-runner candidates," the announcement said. "Ending poverty and fighting for the middle class is the cause of John Edwards' life -- and he will urge the nation to refocus on this important issue."
The writing was on the wall for his withdrawal after Edwards finished third Saturday in South Carolina, which he won in 2004. It was the latest disappointing result after a strong second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses.
Still, as recently as Monday, his campaign was issuing a memo about its "path to the nomination," citing the number of delegates Edwards had collected and his online fund-raising success.
"The Democratic nomination for President will not be decided until any one candidate has amassed 51 percent of the delegates -- which is no easy task for any candidate when there are three strong, viable candidates in the race. Since delegates are awarded proportionately, John Edwards has already accumulated delegates and is in a strong position to accumulate many more delegates on February 5th," the memo asserted.
He leaves the race with 56 delegates, compared to 249 for Clinton and 181 for Obama.