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.
"He's now in a position where he's thinking, who's really ready to be president?" the veteran aide said. "I know that he believes she's going to do what she says he'll do. Not that that isn't the case with Obama, but there's more maturity there [with Clinton]."
Clinton and Obama have been actively wooing Edwards in the hopes of getting one of the last big Democratic endorsements available. Clinton traveled secretly to Chapel Hill, N.C., to meet with Edwards last week; a similar meeting with Obama was rescheduled from Monday night after it received wide press attention.
Both have begun sprinkling their stump speeches with more talk of poverty — Edwards' signature issue. Over the weekend, Clinton told an audience in Maine that she would lean on Edwards' expertise if she's elected president.
"There is a lot John and I have in common," Clinton said. "I will be a fighter, and I intend to ask John Edwards to be a part of anything I do in the White House."
The fact that Edwards' endorsement is in demand is in part a statement on how close the Democratic race is. Edwards won 40 delegates before dropping out, but those so-called Edwards delegates are under no obligation to follow his direction at the Democratic National Convention.
If he hits the trail for a favored candidate, he could be of particular help in attracting the votes of white males — a key swing group in the contests that have taken place to date. But as a string of high-profile politicians have made clear, endorsements rarely translate into votes in primaries and caucuses.
An Edwards endorsement of Clinton would be uncomfortable in large part because of Edwards' own words. As a candidate, Edwards kept up a running and biting critique of Clinton, and set up his candidacy in large part in opposition to Clinton and the type of politics he claimed that she represented.
He tagged Clinton as a "corporate Democrat" who refused to take tough stands on key issues, and he strongly suggested that she's too polarizing a figure to win a general election. He blasted her record on trade and health care, and said she was too indebted to insurance and drug companies to bring real change to Washington.
"Good people are caught up in this system, and I've given some examples of the places that I think she's caught up in it," Edwards told the Associated Press in October. "And I also, secondly, think that she continues to defend it. And I don't think you can bring up the change this country needs if you defend a corrupt system that doesn't work."
At one point, Edwards even refused to commit to backing Clinton is she were to become the nominee, though he later clarified that he would support whomever the Democratic Party nominates.
But toward the end of the campaign, Edwards directed some fire at Obama as well. Edwards blasted Obama when he refused to specifically condemn an independent group that was spending money on his behalf — despite the fact that Obama was harshly critical of Edwards over support he was getting from an outside advocacy group.
"If he really means what he says — and this is not just talk — he should speak up and denounce this kind of divisive politics," Edwards said. "It is not what the Democratic Party needs."
And at the last Democratic debate that featured Edwards, he took a sharper tone with Obama, joining Clinton in questioning why Obama voted "present" on a series of controversial measures in the Illinois state senate.
"What I didn't hear was an explanation for why over 100 times you voted 'present' instead of yes or no when you had a choice to vote up or down," Edwards said.
With three options on the table — an endorsement of either of his former rivals, or maintaining neutrality — the final call is Edwards' alone. He is keeping close counsel, consulting primarily his wife, Elizabeth, according to former aides.
His decision could come down to what he envisions as his role in a Democratic administration. The only Cabinet job he seems interested in is the post of attorney general. While he has said he has no interest in a second run for vice president, one former aide said he certainly wouldn't turn down such an offer, in part because such a path seems to be his only realistic shot of ever becoming president.
But Edwards has told several associates that he envisions himself outside of government, working on poverty in a manner similar to the way Gore has taken on environmental challenges as a personal cause.
As one former aide pointed out, Gore didn't need to make endorsements or accept another government post to make his transition.