As he weighs a possible endorsement in the Democratic race, former Sen. John Edwards is as split as the party he once hoped to lead — and is seriously considering supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite the sharp criticism he leveled at her on the campaign trail, according to former aides and advisers.
In deciding between his one-time rivals, Edwards appears deeply divided. Several former advisers likened his thought process to a heart-versus-head split — with his heart favoring Sen. Barack Obama's strong message of change, and his head attracted to Clinton's tested nature and commitment to tough fights.
Though he sometimes aligned himself with Obama — and against Clinton — as a candidate, several Edwards campaign insiders say the former senator began to sour on Obama toward the end of his own campaign, and ultimately left the race questioning whether Obama had the toughness needed to prevail in a presidential race.
"He is much more torn than people realize," said one former aide who has stayed in contact with Edwards. "Honestly, he has serious reservations about both of them."
Several people close to the former North Carolina senator say he may ultimately stay neutral in the race, joining former Vice President Al Gore on the sidelines of the tightest Democratic race in decades.
That may become a stronger possibility if Obama continues to build momentum toward the nomination: Edwards does not want to back a losing candidate, and neither does he want to join a bandwagon, aides and associates say.
But former campaign aides who have stayed in contact with Edwards say he is eager to play a major role in the race, and is mindful that his backing would only carry weight if it comes relatively quickly — before the March 4 primaries in Texas and Ohio, which could effectively settle the nomination fight.
He also appears to realize that endorsing Clinton would likely carry the most weight, since it would be more unexpected and would provide a jolt of energy to a campaign that is suffering a rough patch, particularly in the wake of Tuesday's election results, which saw Obama sweep Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
If Edwards does choose to endorse, the natural choice would still seem to be Obama, whose outsider status and strong anti-Washington rhetoric is a close fit with the populist streak Edwards brought to his 2008 campaign.
Just last month, at the ABC News/WMUR/Facebook debate shortly before the New Hampshire primary, Edwards came to Obama's defense when Clinton went on the attack.
Obama, Edwards said, "believes deeply in change, and I believe deeply in change. Anytime you speak out for change, this is what happens. The forces for the status quo are going to attack."
But notwithstanding his often caustic criticism of Clinton, on a series of high-profile issues — most notably health care and energy policy — Edwards stands closer to Clinton, D-N.Y., than to Obama, D-Ill. Clinton has taken care to mention the similarities between her health care plan and Edwards' on the trail in recent days.
Another veteran member of Edwards' inner circle said the former candidate is approaching the possibility of an endorsement with a fresh mind. In reexamining both candidates, the former aide said, he is attracted not only to Clinton's policy portfolio, but also to her long track record as first lady and as a senator.