John Edwards bowed out of his second presidential bid saying he hoped the "two Americas" he speaks of so often, one for the haves and the other for the have-nots, could finally be united under a Democratic president. It won't be him.
"It is time for me to step aside so that history can blaze its path," the former North Carolina senator said as he ended his candidacy Wednesday where it began 13 months earlier, in a hurricane-damaged New Orleans neighborhood.
For Edwards, the quest has been one of seeming contradictions and compelling personal drama.
John Kerry's running mate in 2004, Edwards earned millions as a trial lawyer, lives in a 28,000-square-foot house and is known for famously expensive haircuts. He did consulting work for a hedge fund that caters to the super rich to learn about financial markets and their relationship to poverty — and to make money too.
Yet Edwards focused his candidacy on ending poverty and economic inequality.
"It is the cause of my life," he said Wednesday, saying he had won assurances from the remaining two Democratic candidates — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama — that they shared his dream of "one America that works for everybody."
Edwards' story is also one of family challenges.
Until now, he had pressed on with his campaign despite the return of his wife Elizabeth's breast cancer. In 1996, their first-born son, Wade, 16, died when his Jeep rolled over in a high wind. "We've been through the worst a couple can go through," John Edwards later said.
Elizabeth Edwards and the couple's three children — Cate, Emma Claire and Jack — joined him for his New Orleans farewell speech.
His 10-year political career has been marked by a significant political shift.
He ran as a moderate Southerner for the Senate in 1998 and in his first bid for the White House in 2004. He voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq and called universal health care policies irresponsible.
This time, he ran as a liberal, voicing strong opposition to the war and becoming the first candidate to outline a detailed universal health care plan. He has also advocated strict reductions in emissions that contribute to global warming.
Still boyish looking at 54, Edwards speaks with a Carolina twang and is popular with audiences. But he was overshadowed and outspent by high-profile rivals Clinton and Obama.
He failed to win any of the early Democratic contests. While he captured second place in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, narrowly pushing Clinton into third place, it turned out to be his high-water mark. His biggest disappointment came on Saturday, when he finished a distant third in his native South Carolina, whose primary he won in 2004.
Johnny Reid Edwards — the name on his birth certificate — has lived on both sides of the economic divide.
He was born in Seneca, S.C., to parents who worked in a textile mill. He spent most of his youth in rural North Carolina, working for a while in a mill with his father. He was the first member of his family to attend college, graduating from North Carolina State University and then earning a law degree at the University of North Carolina.
As an attorney in Raleigh, N.C., he specialized in representing poor and middle-class families against large corporations, winning millions of dollars in judgments in personal injury and medical malpractice cases, including $25 million for a young girl horribly injured by a defective swimming pool drain.
He won election to the Senate in 1998 with a victory over incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth. Within months of his election, Edwards put his courtroom experience to work in helping senior Senate Democrats to map backroom defense strategy during Bill Clinton's impeachment trial.
Two years later, Edwards was reported to be on Democratic nominee Al Gore's short list of running mates.
In his 2004 race, Edwards won a strong second-place finish in Iowa's caucuses, behind Kerry but ahead of Howard Dean, who had been widely viewed as the front-runner. But despite strong showings in some states, he withdrew from the race after failing to win a single contest on March 2 Super Tuesday primaries.
Since the Democratic defeat in 2004, Edwards has worked at the One America Committee, a political action committee he set up in 2001, and as director of an anti-poverty center at the University of North Carolina.
He was also a paid consultant to the Wall Street investment firm Fortress Investment Group, which has investments in lenders that offered subprime mortgages and had foreclosed on Hurricane Katrina victims. Upon learning of Fortress' investments, Edwards last year divested himself of investments in the group and vowed to help the homeowners.
Edwards struggled to assert himself as the third major candidate in the race, especially during debates marked by increasingly pointed personal arguments between Clinton and Obama. Edwards said he was trying to "represent the grown-up wing of the Democratic Party."
He ended his campaign without an endorsement of either Obama or Clinton, both of whom praised him. Clinton said Edwards had run "a great campaign that was really important for millions of Americans." And Obama said that, while Edwards' campaign had ended, his cause "lives on for all of us who still believe that we can achieve that dream of one America."
Edwards, as he walked toward a Habitat for Humanity House he planned to work on Wednesday, told reporters he would meet with Clinton and Obama before deciding whether to make an endorsement.
Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant who is not affiliated with any candidate, said Edwards was "a smart enough politician to know to try to make his endorsement count in a way that furthers his cause. And I think he'd still like to have a voice in where the party goes. He's not retiring from the party, just from the race."
His son had a different take. Elizabeth Edwards said she informed Jack about the announcement Wednesday morning.
"And he said 'So, Dad's going to be home tomorrow and the day after and the day after,'" she said, laughing. "So there are some people who are very excited about this decision."