Jan. 26, 2008— -- For the fifth contest in a row, John Edwards has come up short. But this time, it was personal: He lost his native state of South Carolina, which he won only four years ago.
Trailing in the polls and short on fundraising dollars, the former trial lawyer turned politician headed into South Carolina with hope, but leaves the state fending off doubts that his campaign was dealt a near fatal blow.
Speaking to several hundred supporters packed into Jillian's Restaurant in downtown Columbia, Edwards vowed to continue his campaign.
"The three of us move on to Feb. 5," said Edwards, after publicly congratulating Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton on their first and second place victories.
"There are millions of Americans that will cast their vote and help shape the future of this party and help shape the future of this campaign," said Edwards, referring to the up-coming Super Duper Tuesday on Feb. 5.
Edwards leaves South Carolina to campaign in Georgia and Tennessee tomorrow.
Earlier in the week, Edwards sensed an opening, and he desperately needed one.
The string of losses begs a reality check for his campaign. How long will it last? Beyond tonight, Edwards' campaign sources assure ABC News.
In an interview with ABC News' David Muir before the vote in South Carolina, Edwards was asked if there was a point at which he would debate the rationale for continuing the campaign.
"No, because the rationale for this campaign has nothing to do with me. It's for the people I speak for," Edwards said.
Political observers have already been debating Edwards' strategy. Some have speculated he may want to stay in the race even if he has little chance at the nomination. Others believe he could play the role of kingmaker -- or queenmaker -- closer to the convention by endorsing one candidate or another.
When asked if he sees himself playing that role, Edwards said, "No, I'm not engaging in counting delegates and all of that, but I do believe there are three of us. And it's going to be very hard to get to 50 percent."
"This thing is going to go on for a long time," Edwards added.
Edwards did have private phone conversations with rivals Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., this week. He also met behind closed doors with Clinton after the South Carolina debate.
"I can tell you our conversations are very warm, very friendly," said Edwards.
When asked if the conversations included political strategy, Edwards told Muir, "If it was, I wouldn't tell you. Not now."
Edwards will not talk about Plan B, instead continuing to rail against opponents he calls "the $100 million candidates."
In the last 24 hours, polls showed John Edwards gaining mainly among white voters in South Carolina, but it wasn't enough to keep him from a third-place finish.
On the eve of the primary, Edwards told Muir he would continue regardless of his finish and offered an unequivocal "no" when asked if he would entertain a second run for vice president.
The last stand for Edwards -- if it didn't come in South Carolina -- will almost surely be on Feb. 5 -- the date of a multistate, delegate-rich contest.
"Every time on Feb. 5 that you see us get a delegate over 300, in our view that's a delegate that says we're on our way to have a shot at the nomination -- a real shot at it, and we think we can get there," said Joe Trippi, a senior adviser to the campaign.
Last week, Edwards began to zero in on the Feb. 5 states -- spending several days campaigning through California, Oklahoma, Missouri and Georgia. Following the South Carolina primary, he will head to all of those states again, in addition to South Dakota and Kansas.
Tuesday, his campaign will go on the air with significant ad buys -- for the first time -- in Feb. 5 states.
By his own contention, Edwards believes that the more voters hear from him, the more supporters he will have.
"I think that the main stream media has been telling America for over a year now that they only have two choices in this race," said Edwards.
"Sooner or later, I have to get more delegates," Edwards admitted. "I honestly think it's dependent on when I get heard in a relatively fair way. Because if I get heard, it will work. I absolutely believe based on all the data that people will be for me if they hear from me in a way that's even remotely even with the other two candidates."