CBS/AP) Democrat John Edwards exited 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.
"It's time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path," Edwards said in New Orleans, where he launched his campaign in late 2006. "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."
The two-time White House candidate made the announcement at an event that had been billed as a speech on poverty. 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.
"He just said it was time to get out," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, Edwards' rural affairs adviser. "I still don't like walking away, but it was John's decision."
The former North Carolina senator did not immediately endorse either candidate in what is now a two-person race for the Democratic nomination. Clinton said Wednesday that Edwards called her to inform her about his decision.
"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 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 and asked for his endorsement. Obama aides said Edwards called again Wednesday morning to confirm the news he was dropping out.
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, most of whom will be free to support either Obama or Clinton, though some will probably look for guidance from Edwards.
Determining where Edwards' supporters will go, if they go to any candidate at all, will be tough, according to CBS News director of surveys Kathy Frankovic. In a post on CBSNews.com's Horserace blog, she noted that those who voted for Edwards were least likely to support one of the other top two candidates for the party's nomination.
"So Edwards might not be able to move his voters to either of the other candidates en masse," Frankovic wrote. "Some of his supporters will clearly opt not to support either Clinton or Obama."
Edwards' advisers said officially he would "suspend" his candidacy, but 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.
Kate Michelman, an adviser to the campaign and former president of NARAL-Pro Choice America, said she spoke to Edwards Wednesday morning and was disappointed to hear he planned to leave the race.
"He felt that this was the moment to take this step, given the reality of this campaign. This campaign has been about two celebrity candidates - excellent and qualified candidates - but celebrity candidates," Michelman said.
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 announced 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, his campaign 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 reined 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.
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.
© MMVIII, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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