Edwards, still upbeat, pulls out of race

N.C. senator pledges to support Kerry's bid for the White House

March 04, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RALEIGH, N.C. - An energetic crowd of nearly 2,000 clapped to hits such as "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge and "I'm Coming Out" by Diana Ross yesterday as they waited inside a packed high school gymnasium to bid farewell to John Edwards' quest for the presidency.

When the North Carolina senator finally stepped to the podium about 4:40 p.m., giving the thumbs-up sign with each hand, the crowd erupted into applause and cheers. The homespun event - at the high school his daughter and eldest son attended - was a fitting end to the race for the Democratic nomination waged by the wealthy former trial lawyer who spoke unceasingly of his humble Southern roots.

"Hey, it's good to be home," Edwards said, as cameras flashed and people craned to see him. "I have never loved my country more than I do today." Moments later, he announced that he was suspending his campaign for the presidency.

In a characteristically uplifting speech, Edwards thanked supporters and vowed to help ensure that Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who dominated the primary season with victories from coast to coast, is elected president.

"Sen. John Kerry has fought for ... more jobs, better health care, cleaner air, cleaner water, a safer world," Edwards said. "They are the causes of my party, they are the causes of America, and they are the reasons we will prevail come November.

"It wasn't very long ago that all the pundits said, `By the time we got to Super Tuesday, there won't even be a John competing,'" Edwards continued. "Well, we proved those pundits wrong, and we're going to prove them wrong come November."

Edwards, who became Kerry's principal rival though he won just one primary, in neighboring South Carolina, punctuated his remarks with mentions of Kerry, describing his one-time rival as a "good friend."

Several at yesterday's rally held Kerry-Edwards signs, but there is no certainty that Edwards will be picked to join the Democratic ticket.

Kerry supporters Victoria Kyere Maten, 15, a high school sophomore, and Hannah Gatlin, 20, a political science major at North Carolina State University, said they hope Kerry chooses Edwards. So did Edwards supporters Carter Worthy, 44, and her friend Megg Rader, 43, both of Raleigh.

"It's a sad day in some ways, because it's the end of Edwards' run for the 2004 nomination. But this is just the beginning of what Edwards can do for America," Worthy said while holding a sign proclaiming: "Senator Edwards: You Make North Carolina Proud." Rader's son Rob, a 9-year-old fourth-grader, wore an Edwards sticker on his shirt.

For a while yesterday, it seemed many wouldn't get a chance to see Edwards, as police and fire officials limited the number of people they let into Broughton High School.

Eventually, however, a decision was made to allow seating in the gym's upper bleachers, and that's when Broughton students Rhea Patel, 14, and Misty Hyde, 15, ran to get through the doors. They said they learned about Edwards' visit though an announcement over the school intercom system.

Logan Price, 16, news editor of Broughton's student paper, The Hi-Times, said publication will be "pushed into next week" to get the Edwards story in.

Although Edwards' supporters had hoped for a shot at the presidency, the mood yesterday remained upbeat, perhaps because many believe that Edwards' political career has just begun.

Ed Bristol, 57, a human services marketing director in Raleigh, said he thinks Edwards, who will relinquish his Senate seat in January, nevertheless "has got a huge future in the party" and commended him on how he ran his campaign. Raleigh resident Gladys Williams, 65, agreed about Edwards' future.

As Edwards left the gymnasium yesterday, many tried in vain to get close enough for a picture. Jack Plexico, 14, did even better than that, getting a handshake with the help of Tonia Butler Perez, 50, whose husband worked on Edwards' campaign. Perez yelled to the senator, then helped extend Jack's hand in time for a touch.

A beaming Jack later thanked Perez, who said she was simply returning a decades-old favor.

"When I was a little girl, Hubert Humphrey came to Durham and somebody did the same thing for me - stuck my hand out so I could shake his hand," Perez said. "I've always remembered that."

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