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."
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.
Changing his image to go on the attack would lead to problems for the ticket, Mr. Green believes. "That might present a very sharp contrast from the way he's been campaigning and a lot of people might ask, 'Is this the real John Edwards?' In politics, discontinuities like that often cause candidates problems."
Sen. Kerry, however, has problems that go far beyond his choice of a vice president. He started the year as an also-ran, so far behind in the polls and the money chase that he had to mortgage his home just to stay in the race. Because he chose to forgo public funding, he can spend freely, without the state-by-state caps that might have hampered other candidates-but he'll have to raise the money first.
President Bush starts with a huge advantage in the money department. While the Democrats have been hammering mercilessly at his record for the past three months, the president has been quietly adding to his record-breaking war chest. With some $100 million already in the bank, Team Bush has been itching to unleash the electoral version of a shock-and-awe campaign.
Thus, less than 48 hours after calling Sen. Kerry to congratulate him on his Super Tuesday victories, Mr. Bush began carpet-bombing the airwaves with a 16-state, $4.5 million ad buy. As images of the New York and Washington terrorist attacks flash across the screen, a narrator intones, "President Bush: steady leadership in times of change." Democrats charged that the president was exploiting a national tragedy for political gain, but Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager, argued that the terrorist attacks were a defining moment for the administration.
Bush advisers also relish the thought of defining Sen. Kerry, whose quarter-century in Washington has left him with a voting record he may find hard to defend with the many constituencies that make up the Democratic Party. As Sen. Kerry tries to run to the center to shore up his weakness with independent voters (see sidebar), the Bush team is certain to accuse him of flip-flopping-and cite the votes to prove it.
There is a danger in that, however: The president has a huge fundraising advantage, but his challenger has a wife worth an estimated half-billion dollars. Theresa Heinz Kerry says she won't unleash that fortune unless her husband is attacked, but once that happens, the campaign could quickly become one of the nastiest in memory.
It might even be enough to make some wish for the return of John Edwards No. 1.
-with reporting by John Dawson in Ohio