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John Edwards, king|queenmaker

John EdwardsHe’ll never admit it until the proper time comes — which could be any time of his choosing — but John Edwards in the back of his mind must know by now that he’s not going to win the nomination to be the Democratic Party’s candidate for the US presidency in 2008. In Iowa, New Hampshire and even South Carolina, Edwards has fallen back to third place in the polls. If he comes in third in Iowa, his entire strategy will have failed and he will have no other option than to drop out. And so the $1 million question then is: who will John Edwards endorse? Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama?

As I write this, pundits seem to be missing that Edwards’s star appears to be fading, blinded as they are by focusing entirely on the brutal violence of the Clinton-Obama battles, which obviously makes for good headlines. By doing so, they are missing out on the one factor that is likely to decide the Democratic Party’s nomination: the approximately 10 to 15% of the Democratic primary and caucus Edwards-votes that would be up for grabs by either Clinton or Obama, should the former Senator from North Carolina decide to give in.

His campaign will deny it until the very last second of the Iowa caucus, but as January 3 comes closer the issue will slowly but surely be pushed to the forefront. There’s a big chance that Edwards will come in not second but third in Iowa, and the polls in New Hampshire and South Carolina do not look very good either. There’s an equally big chance he will lose in those two states as well, and since his campaign was obviously based on coming in on top in Iowa, where he has been campaigning virtually non-stop since 2004, the loss in Iowa is likely to destroy his entire nomination campaign.

When that happens, Edwards has two choices. Either stay in the campaign, knowing that after losing in Iowa, the press will ignore him completely as they focus even more on ‘Clinton versus Obama’. In fact, chances are that he will move to the back pages of the newspapers, amid the Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse freakshow. His ego won’t be able to stand much of that ridicule, which will also virtually guarantee that he stands no chance of getting the vice-president nod from whoever wins the nomination. (Edwards isn’t coveting that position anyway.)

So the second, only rational and face-saving choice would be to throw the hat into the ring almost immediately after the Iowa caucus results come in (providing, of course, that he finishes third) and thus before the New Hampshire primary, which is held 2 days after the Iowa caucus. And if he does, then the question is whether Edwards will endorse another candidate. As Joe Biden, Bill Richardson and Christopher Dodd are seen dropping out quite quickly after their Iowa loss as well, it stands to reason that Edwards will have to choose between Obama and Clinton. Who of the two is he likely to endorse?

It is no secret that the Clintons have always held somewhat of a special place in their calculating hearts for Edwards; if anything, they were closer to him than to Obama. Bill Clinton has at times hinted that he backed John Edwards more than he did John Kerry during the presidential campaign of 2004 and there is no reason to think that Edwards has forgotten about that support. Naturally the Edwards and Clinton campaigns have traded barbs every now and then in the run-up to the nomination campaign of this cycle, but these were more superficial than anything hard-hitting.

However, despite those warm feelings for each other, one of Edwards’s nomination campaign themes has been ‘change’, not ‘continuity’ in the shape and form of extending the Clinton dynasty. So in that respect, and when purely looking at Edwards’s platform, perhaps a choice for Obama instead of Clinton would be more logical for Edwards. But then Edwards’s platform places much more emphasis on the ‘One America’ theme, invoking the image of an increasingly deeper rift between the rich and the poor, which (until recently) wasn’t one of Obama’s main platform themes.

Perhaps the answer lies in the kind of voters Edwards is popular with. Edwards has always been trying to reach out to unions and voters in the lower to lower-midde-class income brackets. His target audience therefore has a lot of overlap with Clinton’s, whose campaign has also been reaching out to unions and other representative organisations. Another target audience is women, which are quite obviously also a Clinton target. Another main overlapping theme that recently attracted voters to the Edwards camp was his plan for a national health insurance, which looks more like Clinton’s plan than Obama’s. Edwards has also criticised Obama’s plan more than he has Clinton’s.

But even though there is a lot of overlap, there is also a reason why so many people have been rooting for Edwards ever since Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy: a lot of Edwards voters simply don’t like Clinton. More often than not, Edwards voters are disgusted at the idea of having to vote for Clinton during the national election. Still, though, if they don’t want a Republican taking the White House again, they know they’ll have to as regardless of what polls and pundits are saying now, chances are that the presidential election is going to be very, very close again, just like in 2000 and 2004. If Edwards himself then implores them to vote for Clinton durong the nomination process, it might just be enough to decisively tilt the balance in her favour.

However, regardless of all these rational parameters, the decision lies entirely with Edwards personally. It is the second time that he is seeking presidential office, first as the Democratic vice-president nominee and now as a candidate for the top job. Losing out once is painful, losing twice is a disaster in political terms, not just because of the loss of face in the public arena (resulting in a lot less support should he ever try to run for president again), but perhaps even more because of the sense of personal failure.

If and when he gets to take a decision, he will know from private polls provided by his campaign that some of his voters in the last weeks of the Iowa campaign moved to the Obama-camp because of the ‘Anybody But Clinton’-vote that holds sway among the more leftist Democratic activists, and the inevitable ‘Oprah-mojo’ of the Obama campaign. Yet some of his voters will also have crossed the bridge (back) to the Clinton camp — the voters that are afraid that Obama is indeed too unexperienced to stand up to the Republican Character Assassination Machine in a national election.

And when deciding whether he should take a decision at all, there is another factor that will certainly be on his mind, which is: securing an important role in the Democratic party in the future. Edwards is someone who thrives in the spotlight; it’s a gene he seems to share with Bill Clinton. By simply accepting defeat and walking away, he will also walk out of many people’s minds, forever tainted as a loser.

The mere thought is anathema to Edwards. He understands that making a choice for one of the two candidates will at least ensure him a spot in the Democratic pantheon and who knows, perhaps he will be invited for an important position in Obama’s or Clinton’s administration. If not that, then White House support while running for governor of North Carolina would certainly help.

With all that in mind, and looking at the national polls in which Clinton still has a double-digit lead over Barack Obama in the nomination process and also leads possible Republican opponents in most polls, Edwards would be hard-pressed to give the nod to Obama instead of Clinton.