RALEIGH, N.C. – It's been a long, hard run for John Edwards (search), but the North Carolina senator can now sit down and rest.
On Wednesday, during a speech in his hometown, he ended his formal pursuit of the Democratic presidential nomination and told supporters to unite behind the presumptive nominee, John Kerry (search).
"Man, it's good to be home," Edwards told a rousing group of supporters after taking the stage to John Cougar Mellencamp's "Small Town."
"I have never loved my country more than I do today. All my life, America has smiled at me and today, I'm smiling right back.
"From the beginning, this has never been my campaign. This has been your campaign and I am blessed to be a part of it," he continued. But "today, I've decided to suspend my candidacy for the president of the United States."
The speech took place at the high school where two of his children once attended, including his son Wade, who died in 1996 at age 16 in a car accident. It came amid speculation that his likable personality and optimism would return to the campaign trail if presumptive nominee John Kerry (search) were to pick him for a running mate.
"Those of you who cast your votes for me cast your votes for a new kind of politics. You wanted a positive campaign and you got one for a change," Edwards said.
"Senator Kerry has fought back in this campaign, and he's won because his heart is good. He believes that America is at its best when we all have an equal chance, and equal opportunity to do our very best."
Edwards showered Kerry with praise, hailing his bravery, courage and steel political will.
He said the Massachusetts senator had battled for "more jobs, better health care, cleaner air, cleaner water, a safer world" and more.
"They are the causes of our party. They are the causes of America and they are the reason we will prevail," Edwards said.
"I intend to do everything in my power to make him the president of the United States," Edwards continued. "And I ask you to join me in this cause."
In his address, Edwards said his campaign has changed the dynamic in the race, honing in on issues like trade and poverty.
He spent the day with staffers Wednesday, thanking them for all of their hard work and putting the finishing touches on his exit speech. He also spent much of the day with his family.
Edwards, who called his campaign "the little engine that could" on Tuesday night, outlasted other presidential hopefuls like former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt.
The freshman senator is certain to remain a force in the Democratic Party. After insisting for months that he wasn't interested in the vice presidency, his aides now suggest Edwards wouldn't turn down such an offer from presumptive nominee Kerry.
In Iowa, the Southerner proved that an underdog didn't have to go negative to be heard. He also was able to win newspaper endorsements in Iowa, South Carolina and Wisconsin. Many campaign veterans consider newspaper accolades a trifle quaint these days, but Edwards used them shrewdly to inexpensively broaden his appeal.
Edwards capitalized on his positive message, high approval ratings and his "two Americas" campaign theme — that there are two Americas, one for the rich and powerful and the other for everybody else — struck a chord with many voters.
Edwards' upbringing was a central theme to his populist message. He scarcely missed an opportunity to talk about his upbringing as the son of a textile mill worker who lost his job when the factory closed.
We Haven't Seen the Last of Him
Edwards' appealing campaign style and high positives should serve him well in the future, Democratic strategists suggest. If Bush were re-elected in November, Edwards could run again in 2008.
Edwards lost all 10 Super Tuesday contests. His advisers had hoped victories in Georgia, Ohio and Minnesota would carry him into four March 9 primaries in the South.
Edwards, 50, became a millionaire as a plaintiff's trial lawyer, making most of his money in medical malpractice cases. His 1998 election to the Senate was his first attempt at public office.
Kerry has said he will "try to find the best person" as his running mate. While remaining noncommittal on whom that might be, Kerry said, "There is no doubt John Edwards brings a compelling voice to our party."
Edwards, who stepped up his criticism of Kerry only in the last week, called his four-term Senate colleague "my friend" and said, "He's run a strong, powerful campaign."
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the notion of a Kerry-Edwards ticket.
The American Tort Reform Association (search) asserted on Wednesday that choosing Edwards would be a liability to Kerry's race for the White House.
"Senator Edwards' campaign has been funded by personal injury lawyers who would drive a pro-litigation, anti-civil justice reform agenda," association President Sherman Joyce said. "Kerry should be wary of aligning himself with someone who is beholden to these Learjet lawyers."
Although he is only 10 years younger than Kerry, Edwards looks boyish and is relatively inexperienced in both government and international relations, liabilities in the eyes of some Democrats.
At the beginning of the year, Dean was viewed as the front-runner, while both Kerry and Edwards were far back in the pack. Edwards rose dramatically after an unexpectedly strong second-place finish in Iowa. He won only a single state — South Carolina, where he was born — despite a string of strong second-place finishes.
He had been poised to withdraw on at least three previous election nights, beginning with South Carolina's primary a month ago, spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said. But each week he found something in the returns encouraging enough to continue - until Kerry won so many delegates Tuesday night.
"There was too big a gap," Palmieri said.
Fox News' Major Garrett and The Associated Press contributed to this report.