WASHINGTON – Sen. Evan Bayh on Saturday ended his White House bid while 2004 vice presidential nominee John Edwards finalized plans to get in, fast-paced jockeying in a Democratic race under the shadow of two unannounced candidates.
Bayh decided he could not compete with Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, whose possible candidacies have dominated the positioning almost two years before the actual election.
Edwards, the former North Carolina senator, has decided he can and is planning to announce his campaign in New Orleans between Christmas and New Year's, two Democrats said.
Edwards' novel choice of sites shows how he wants to distinguish his candidacy: emphasizing policies he believes can unite a country divided by economic inequality, a situation no more evident than in the city's Lower Ninth Ward, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina.
Bayh's exit stunned rivals and supporters. The former Indiana governor abandoned his bid just two weeks after forming a committee to raise money and gauge support for his candidacy.
"The odds were always going to be very long for a relatively unknown candidate like myself, a little bit like David and Goliath," Bayh said in the statement. He added that beyond the question of "whether there were too many Goliaths or whether I'm just not the right David," his chances were slim.
Bayh did not say who he considered to be the Goliaths. Yet it is Obama and Clinton who are attracting most of the attention among the 10 or more Democrats considering a bid.
Edwards, however, is in a strong position as the leading candidate in the first nominating state, Iowa. He has taken the lead in Iowa polling even with favorite son Gov. Tom Vilsack in the mix.
Democratic strategist Stephanie Cutter said Clinton and Obama have emerged as the front-runners much earlier than was the case in previous campaigns. But she said another candidate could compete with them.
"There's room for one more. The question is: Who is it right now? And I don't think anybody can tell you with any real certainty of who that could be," she said.
Cutter said it is unclear if Edwards, despite campaigning hard in Iowa, can hold onto his lead until early 2008, when the state holds its nominating contest, as potential rivals get serious about the race.
Edwards plans to give Iowa more attention an announcement tour to begin around Dec. 28, the Democratic officials said. He plans to travel from New Orleans to Iowa and the three other early voting states — Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
The officials who discussed Edwards' plans spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to pre-empt his announcement. Edwards' spokesman, David Ginsberg, would not confirm or deny Edwards' plans.
Clinton and Obama would start in a strong position if they decide to run.
The former first lady, one the most well-known women in America, has a vast network of supporters developed during President Clinton's two terms.
Obama, who left Saturday on a two-week trip to visit family in his native Hawaii, has little experience in national politics; he has been in the Senate for only two years. But his message of hope is attracting support from Democrats who are looking for a fresh face and are concerned that Clinton could not win the general election.
Bayh got a taste of the competition Obama poses when they were in New Hampshire last weekend. Bayh, who had worked for months to line up support in the state, spoke at small gatherings; Obama, on his first visit, drew thousands of activists and hordes of reporters at two packed events.
Bayh had sent his staff to help with last month's election. On one trip, he raised money for a successful state Senate candidate, Betsi DeVries. She said Bayh's support was a "huge benefit" and he was in her top tier of presidential hopefuls, although she had not committed to supporting him in return.
"It was an eye-opener I would imagine for a number of these candidates who had been practicing the typical retail politics in New Hampshire to see the large crowds that Senator Obama drew," DeVries said Saturday upon hearing the news of Bayh's exit.
Bayh, 50, left open the possibility of another run. "There may be no campaign in the near future, but there is much work to be done," the two-term senator said.
Edwards, who used to run daily with Bayh when both were in the Senate, already is well known from the 2004 campaign and his profile has risen this year as he and his wife, Elizabeth, went on nationwide tours to promote their books.
Bayh was one of the most well-positioned candidates in the money race, with more than $10 million already to put into his campaign. But he faced a challenge in continuing to build his war chest while other candidates soaked up all the national attention.
Insiders expect this campaign will be the most expensive in history, with candidates needing to raise tens of millions of dollars next year to remain viable.
"The hardest part for anybody is to figure out how do I get $30 to 40 million," said Steve Elmendorf, a top adviser to Dick Gephardt and John Kerry's 2004 presidential bids. "It's daunting for anybody. I think Mrs. Clinton and Obama can do it, but I have real questions if any one else can do it."
He said Edwards could become a contender if he continues to hold the lead in Iowa. "If he can surprise people in Iowa, then it becomes a three-way race," Elmendorf said.
Edwards' campaign plans include an aggressive fundraising effort to prove that he belongs in the top tier. Because he currently does not hold federal office, Edwards does not have a war chest like some of his rivals. In fact, he has several hundred thousands of dollars of debt from his 2004 presidential campaign.