Edwards joins Democratic race for presidency

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The Independent US

John Edwards, the Democrats' defeated vice-presidential candidate in 2004, is launching a second run for the White House, bolstered by strong ties to the labour movement and his position as the party's only serious candidate from the South.

Mr Edwards, a former senator for North Carolina, will kick off his campaign in the week after Christmas, aides say, in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, the area of the city hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. He will follow up with a quick swing through key early primary states, including New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.

Although he has been assiduously preparing a 2008 run, almost from the moment President Bush won re-election two years ago, Mr Edwards, 53, has been squeezed out of the public eye by Hillary Clinton and, more recently, Barack Obama, the charismatic junior senator from Illinois.

But he has considerable strengths. Thanks to the 2004 campaign, he has high name recognition, and considerable fundraising ability. He is also far ahead in early polls in Iowa, whose caucuses kick off the primary season, and where he has a strong organisation.

A win there, followed by a good performance in his birth state of South Carolina could turn the contest into a three-cornered race, assuming that Ms Clinton and Mr Obama join the contest - as both are giving every sign of doing.

In 2004, Mr Edwards based his campaign on criticism of the "Two Americas" where the poor were getting poorer and the rich richer. This time, he is advocating specific policies, including universal health care and equal educational opportunity.

He has also been polishing his national security credentials - perhaps the biggest question mark about the boyish-looking candidate of two years ago, when the country had not yet truned against the Iraq war. He has lanced that boil by declaring that his vote as a senator authorising the war had been wrong, and calling for troops to be withdrawn.

When he declares, Mr Edwards will become the third Democrat officially in the race, alongside Tom Vilsack, the centrist Governor of Iowa, and Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio congressman who is making his second long-shot run for the presidency, from the political far left.

But they and other potential candidates are in the shadow of the as yet undeclared "big two" - Ms Clinton and Mr Obama. The New York senator and former first lady has assembled a formidable team of advisers and a large war chest already for a campaign expected to require a "downpayment" of $50m (£26m) or more.

Despite the onset of "Obama-mania" - as evidenced by his rock star-style reception in New Hampshire last weekend - she is still front-runner in most polls. But many Democrats worry Ms Clinton's candidacy is complicated both by her relationship with her husband, and fears that Americans are not in the mood for more dynasty politics. As for Mr Obama, he has now raised expectations almost to the point that a decision not to run would be seen by his admirers as betrayal.

Virtually to a man, America's punditocracy is saying that even though he is only 45 and has been a senator for less than two years, the political stars may never be so perfectly aligned again.

He will make a formal decision early in the new year. But a day after capturing the hearts of New Hampshire Democrats, he gave a tease in a prime-time spot on a top-rated sports show, saying: "I can now confirm I will [long pause]... support the [Chicago] Bears." The Bears are his local NFL football team.

As Mr Edwards gears up for the race, another Democrat is dropping out. Evan Bayh, the centrist senator from Indiana, had announced only a fortnight ago he was setting up a presidential exploratory committee, usually a reliable pointer to a formal bid.

But on Saturday he stunned political friends and foes alike when he announced that he would not run: "The odds were always going to be very long for a relatively unknown candidate like myself, a little bit like David and Goliath," Mr Bayh said. He had now concluded they were "longer than I could possibly pursue."

Other Democratic senators mulling a bid could now feel the same way. John Kerry, the defeated nominee in 2004, seems determined to run, even though polls put him far behind Ms Clinton and Mr Obama, and even his old running mate Mr Edwards. But potential candidates such as senators Joe Biden of Delaware and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut may decide that discretion is the better part of valour.