John Edwards withdrew from the race for the presidency Jan. 30, saying in New Orleans, where he had launched his campaign, “it is time to step aside so that history can blaze its path.” He was referring to a campaign that could put Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman, or Barack Obama, the first African American, in the White House.

Speaking in the still devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans he said, “With our convictions and a little backbone we will take back the White House in November.” Edwards had embraced New Orleans as the symbol of what he described as a system that didn’t hear the cries of the downtrodden.

Edwards told reporters he would meet with Clinton and Obama before deciding whether to make an endorsement and he set no timetable for deciding when he might endorse either candidate.

Clinton and Obama both praised Edwards.

“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 praised Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth. At a rally in Denver, he said the couple has “always believed deeply that two Americas can become one, and that our country can rally around this common purpose.

“So while his campaign may have ended,” Obama said, “this cause lives on for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America.”

The Edwards campaign, which had significant labor backing, helped point the campaign debate in a progressive direction by focusing on issues important to working people and the poor. He garnered endorsements from significant industrial unions such as the steelworkers, miners, transportation and dockers.

The impact of Edwards’ withdrawal will be felt in less than a week when Democrats hold caucuses across 22 states, with 1,681 delegates at stake.

Estimates of who will benefit most from his withdrawal vary widely.

In South Carolina exit polls, a majority of Edwards voters said Obama was their second choice.

In an informal MSNBC poll taken on the day of the Edwards withdrawal, 65 percent of respondents said they thought Edwards should back Obama.
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 earlier in January.

Edwards had amassed 56 national convention delegates, most of whom will be free to back either Obama or Clinton.

An immediate result of the withdrawal will be six additional delegates for Obama, giving him a total of 187, and four more for Clinton, giving her 253. (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 can re-assign them.)

The overall totals for Obama and Clinton, 187 and 253 respectively, include the delegates they each won in the caucus and primary states so far, and the “superdelegates” they each have at this point.

“Superdelegates” are party and elected officials who automatically attend the convention and can support whomever they choose. Three superdelegates had already switched from Edwards to Obama before the news of the Edwards withdrawal. A big trend in the popular votes on Feb. 5 can cause even more shifting among this group. A total of 2,025 delegates are needed to secure the Democratic nomination.

There were a number of progressive platforms that Edwards put out before any of the other major candidates. Only Kucinich beat him to the punch, in this regard.

He was the first of the three to call for a plan for universal health care and, aside from Kucinich, the only one to call on Congress to pull funding for the war. He was the first to charge that lobbyists have too much power in Washington and needed to be curbed.

In some ways this reflected a trend that showed itself among numerous candidates. He had evolved since 2004 from a moderate southern Senator into a pro-union, community and political activist by 2008. Clinton, too, shifted significantly in a progressive direction on numerous issues and both her campaign and the Obama campaign have increasingly taken on the populist and anti-corporate themes stressed by Edwards.

Even Mitt Romney, the Republican, in some ways tried to echo the Edwards campaign in its strong condemnation of special interest politics in Washington.