Cover Story

SETTLING FOR SECOND-BEST

The campaign of John Edwards is over-or is it? Whatever presumptive nominee John Kerry decides about his No. 2 man, he faces a difficult race for the nation's top job

Issue: "John Kerry's dream," March 13, 2004

There are two Americas, John Edwards insisted hundreds of times in his stump speech: one for the rich and powerful, and one for everyone else. Turns out there are two John Edwardses as well: one in presidential-campaign mode, and one in I'll-settle-for-VP mode.

In the days leading up to Super Tuesday, when it looked like he might actually have a shot at the nomination if he could win just one or two contests on March 2, John Edwards No. 1 was calling the front-runner, John Kerry, a Washington insider who flip-flopped on the issues and couldn't possibly beat George Bush in the fall.

On March 3, after losing 29 primaries and winning just one, it was John Edwards No. 2 who took the podium at a high-school gym in Raleigh, N.C. Suddenly, the scrappy underdog had nothing but nice things to say about "my friend John Kerry, whom I know very well.... He showed the strength, the resilience, the courage he has shown his entire life when he fought for us and for our country in Vietnam-he's done it all throughout this campaign."

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And the love fest didn't end there. "The truth of the matter is John Kerry has what matters right here," Sen. Edwards said, tapping on his chest, "to be president of the United States. And I, for one, intend to do everything in my power to make him the next president of the United States. And I ask you to join me in this cause."

With that, the two John Edwardses suspended their campaign, leaving Sen. Kerry with no serious obstacles in his path to the nomination.

It was a painfully abrupt exit for the perpetual runner-up, who had math-but not momentum-on his side. Despite his nine-state Super Tuesday sweep, Sen. Kerry finished the night with just 1,502 delegates, still short of the 2,162 needed to clinch the nomination. Sen. Edwards, meanwhile, with his collection of second-place finishes, racked up 505 delegates. Although he could have strung out the process for another few weeks, taking close to 1,000 delegates with him to the party convention in Boston, Sen. Edwards would never have been more than a spoiler, as Tuesday's results clearly showed.

Although he talked bravely of winning Ohio and Minnesota, Georgia was the make-or-break state for the North Carolina senator. With a win in Georgia, the only Deep South state with a primary on Super Tuesday, Sen. Edwards might have been able to justify hanging on for another week, until voters in four other Southern states could go to the polls on March 9.

But even as ballots trickled in for hours in Georgia, scientific exit polls had already convinced the Edwards team that they could not win. Coupled with previous defeats in Tennessee and Virginia, the Georgia loss dealt a fatal blow to Sen. Edwards's Southern strategy. While the night was still young in Atlanta, he had all but conceded. "We have been the little engine that could, and I am proud of what we have done together," he told hundreds of supporters at a would-be victory party on the campus of Georgia Tech.

The little engine had clearly run out of steam.

Following his surprise win in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Kerry's vast financial advantage made it all but impossible for any of his challengers to gain traction. Everywhere he campaigned, even after the others had dropped out, Sen. Edwards seemed to find himself in Sen. Kerry's shadow. A last-minute Edwards rally at the University of Toledo student center packed in hundreds of enthusiastic supporters, for instance, but Sen. Kerry had already rallied his troops in the same venue-and his campaign stickers remained stuck on the concrete floor.

Sen. Edwards's upbeat, positive campaign took on a slightly harder edge in the final weeks as the boyish-looking senator tried to differentiate himself from the front-runner. Even so, he largely avoided personal attacks, focusing instead on trying to deflate Sen. Kerry's vaunted electability.

Some Edwards supporters believe his nice-guy image, coupled with his second-place finish, make him the natural choice as a vice-presidential pick. The boisterous crowd at his concession speech was sprinkled with Kerry-Edwards placards, and pundits immediately began assessing his chances.

"John Edwards has a big fan club and many have argued that he'd be a good VP candidate," says John Green, a political science professor at the University of Akron. Sen. Edwards would "bring a degree of moderation and compete in at least a few Southern states," though he lacks the attack-dog instinct that has been the hallmark of many vice presidents since Richard Nixon.

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