BY NOW, THE WORDS“distant third” have become attached to the name “John Edwards” as surely as “hale” belongs with “hearty” and “vim” needs “vigor.” He will not recover whatever momentum he had in Iowa, where caucus-goers ranked him second; he will not coast to victory on the enthusiasm that follows his every debate performance. As his two opponents face off in their own personal Thunderdome, Edwards' name fades from the newspapers, the radio, the television election roundups; even Barack Obama has to admit he feels bad that Edwards doesn't get more attention.


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Edwards insists he will not fade from the lineup altogether, repeating the reasonable argument that only a small fraction of delegates have been distributed, and a few states' opinions do not a nominee make. But he is wrong: Edwards will not be the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

That's not such a tragedy. The Democratic field still has two candidates who will make history if they're chosen to represent the party, and shatter world opinion if they win. Both of them will surely resist the temptation to launch (or, God forbid, continue) a war with Iran. The voters of the United States have awakened into a bright, eager world in which a black man and a white woman have left behind a field of mostly white men early in the Democratic Party primary, and the one white male left standing has been reduced to bleating from the sidelines about how he's shut out of the mainstream media coverage.

“It's amazing now that being the white male is… different,” a cheerier-than-usual Edwards confided to Obama during the South Carolina debate, held on the day set aside to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. In a country that granted blacks and women full voting rights only in the last century*, this in itself is a delightful irony and a small revolution, and we should not wait until the final returns come in this November to celebrate it.

Still, unless Edwards reneges before February 5, he will get my vote in the California primary, and his performance in last week's Monday-night debate reminded me once again why. While Obama used the platform to correct what he claimed were inaccuracies perpetrated by both Clintons (“Sometimes I don't know who I'm running against,” he muttered), and Clinton shot back ill-supported zingers about Obama's work on behalf of a Chicago slumlord — as both grew ever more petulant, shouting over each other and eliciting astonished sounds from the audience — Edwards, who loves a good fight over matters of actual substance, shattered their bubble.

“[I] want to know, on behalf of voters here in South Carolina, this kind of squabbling, how many children is this going to get health care?” he demanded.

That the question came out grammatically garbled made it ever so much better: This was a spontaneous protest from the gut, not a talking point vetted in advance by handlers.

People call Edwards strident, a word that, having been paired so long with “feminist,” good liberals can now use only to describe angry white men. And perhaps it's unfair to apply it to Edwards, too, who speaks not for a constituency defined by his biological identity, but for an even less fashionable segment of the disenfranchised: the terminally indigent, the working poor and the strangled middle class. Clinton may be female and Obama black, but Edwards, the white guy, remains the candidate of the truly progressive, the marginalized, the people who know that the system is irrevocably broken, but have no faith they can fix it. If unions such as UNITE-HERE and the Culinary Workers don't endorse him, I suspect it's because their strategy-minded leaders doubt the electability of a man who so recklessly defends workers' interests — who even marches on writers' picket lines in defiance of the Hollywood mogul money so critical to Democratic campaigns.

And say what you will about Edwards' voting record in the Senate, which was no more a paragon of liberalism than Clinton's has been — and only slightly better than the slim one we have for Obama, who in his first term endorsed an industry-friendly energy bill and missed some key votes — it's still hard to imagine Edwards calling Reagan “transformative” or pandering to the religious right by bringing up Jesus Christ, which Obama does shamelessly. Edwards stands firm in his conviction that it's a new tax plan — one that spreads the burden of funding Social Security fairly across income levels — not his unifying personality or relationship with God, that will transform the country and, by extension, the world.

AFTER THE SOUTH CAROLINA debate, CNN's Larry King invited a married couple to duke it out over Obama and Clinton. Georgetown professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, as a black male, was for Obama; his wife, the Rev. Marcia Dyson, stood as a woman for Clinton. It was a simplistic matchup, condescending to both candidates, whose appeal stretches far beyond their own respective demographics. But if we were to extend the silliness further and include Edwards — who by rights should have been included — who would represent him? A former coal miner who lost his job when Massey Energy started taking the tops off mountains with machines? The mother Edwards invoked in the debate who piles coats over her freezing children to keep them warm at night? Me? I grew up in a working-class neighborhood that I was once embarrassed to claim. I scraped together money for college by working night shifts in a nursing home and Perkins Pancake House. I look at college costs now and doubt that path would still be possible.

So perhaps Edwards isn't strident, but instead genuinely frustrated by the 5 million Americans added to the poverty rolls in the last seven years, the 50 million Americans left out of Bush's bogus “stimulus” plan, and the soaring costs of health care that leave 50 million Americans dangling on the edge of disaster should they fall ill. Perhaps he realizes that if he came of age today, his chances of becoming a successful trial lawyer would be severely diminished.

“It's the cause of my life to end poverty,” he says frequently, a mantra Clinton has begun to echo: “Poverty,” she said during the debate, “is the central core cause of everything I've been doing for the last 35 years.”

Laugh if you want, but what a claim like that proves most of all is that, even with his distant-third status, Edwards still has the power to move his opponents — professional compromisers and deal makers, both of them — to such declarations. It will be left to us to hold Clinton or Obama to those causes when we elect one of them president.

And, oh God, we must. Even the least of these three is a saint compared to anyone in the Republican minefield, whose front-runners include an Arkansas governor who believes our immigration problems arose from having to import Mexican workers after we aborted too many U.S. babies in the 1970s and '80s; a Massachusetts governor whose church holds that Native Americans descended from Hebrews banished from Israel; and John McCain, who would straight-talk away our reproductive rights and, as he recently told an audience in New Hampshire, occupy Iraq for a century.

By contrast, the Democrats these days bicker vibrantly about racism and economic inequality; about the impact of corporate lobbyists on policymaking and the necessity of universal health care (which, as Edwards noted, isn't “universal” unless, unlike Obama's elective plan, it mandates coverage for everybody). They crawl all over each other trying to establish who will create the most “green-collar” jobs. They drag yellow highlighters over each other's contributor list; they brag about their civil rights credentials; they chew over the intricacies of free-trade agreements (is the Peru deal as bad as NAFTA?). They speak admiringly of Edwards' father, who worked in South Carolina's textile mills for 36 years, giving his son an honest-to-goodness working-class pedigree that almost trumps being black or female.

“You don't hear the Republicans talk about any of these things,” Clinton told the audience on Monday night.

True enough. But lest she get too smug, Edwards reminded her that “There are things we don't talk about either.” Or, rather, things they wouldn't talk about if he weren't there to force those issues.

Stay, John. Stay.

*Although the 15th Amendment in 1870 prohibited discrimination at the polls, only with the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were blacks in the South able to practice their right to vote without violence, intimidation, poll taxes or literacy tests.

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