While John Edwards sought to put a positive spin on his third-place finish in Tuesday's New Hampshire Democratic primary, his failure to stay close to rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama raised doubts about whether his campaign could mount a credible challenge going into the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday caucuses and primaries.
"Two races down, 48 states left to go," Edwards, a former North Carolina senator, told supporters after the polls closed. "I am in this race to the convention, and I intend to be the nominee of my party."
But Edwards' campaign has not been able to raise the kind of money that his top rivals, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, have pulled in. With every failure to win a primary, he diminishes his chances of overtaking his opponents, said political analyst Bruce Cain, director of UC Berkeley's Washington Center.
"My view is that normally this would be the end, but I think it comes down to what labor wants," said Cain, referring to the organized labor movement. "If they think it's good having his voice, bringing up the issues that force the other candidates to respond, they may see it as worth their while to keep him in it until Feb. 5. It really depends on whether the money is there."
Both Iowa and New Hampshire are states that can be won the old-fashioned way: with door-knocking, handshaking and a grueling pace of public appearances. Edwards has a disadvantage in large states like California, New York and Illinois. Those states are usually won by gaining attention in the news media, which often focus on which candidate has momentum and has captured the voters' interest, and by airing expensive television ads.
"It's clear that the race is coming down to two candidates," and Edwards isn't one of them, Cain said.
But Tuesday night, Edwards' advisors insisted that the campaign would not be derailed by their candidate's lackluster showing in New Hampshire, where Edwards received less than half the support of the two top finishers. Spokesman Eric Schultz said that showing met the campaign's expectations.
"We need a strong third-place finish," he said at the Edwards celebration in an old mill along the banks of the Merrimack River. "We are in this for the long haul. . . . For us, it's not a win-lose for each state, and thankfully the delegates aren't awarded that way, either."
Supporters were less optimistic. Marjorie Vai, 60, of Manhattan, came to the Granite State 10 days ago to volunteer for Edwards and estimated that she had called nearly 1,000 people, trying to drum up support.
"I thought we were doing great," Vai said, looking nervous as she watched early returns on television. "I don't like the numbers."