Senator Edwards sets the campaign tone

January 26, 2004|By Jules Witcover

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts may be the Democratic front-runner now, but it can be fairly said that his younger Senate colleague, John Edwards of North Carolina, has had a greater overall impact on the tone of the campaign heading into tomorrow's New Hampshire primary.

The accentuate-the-positive posture that marked Mr. Edwards' surprise second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, coupled with the contrasting anger of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, has persuaded the Democratic presidential field to cool what was a verbal wrestling match in Iowa.

That more collegial climate dominated the final New Hampshire debate here the other night, with the candidates turning their ire much more on President Bush than on one another. Dr. Dean, however, could not resist a reminder that Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut all supported Mr. Bush's war resolution in 2002.

The relative love-fest indicated that the contending Democrats recognized that voters had enough of the intramural sniping that Mr. Edwards condemned in Iowa and contrasted with his own uplifting, optimistic stump style. The other candidates also seemed convinced, after Dr. Dean's flame-thrower of a speech intended to fire up his troops, that lowering the temperature was in order.

An obvious outcome of the Iowa results in New Hampshire has been to elevate the question of electability in a party unified on one point - that George W. Bush must be ousted from the White House. Dr. Dean's post-caucus harangue cast a heavy cloud over him on that question. And Mr. Edwards' happy-face demeanor, along with the fact that he looks much younger than his 50 years, still invites speculation that he's not ready yet to run the country.

So far, the beneficiary of this circumstance has been Mr. Kerry, who before Iowa had been largely dismissed by his New England neighbors in what had been viewed as a drifting and listless campaign. With Dr. Dean suddenly in a free-fall and the electability standard thus elevated, Mr. Kerry's war record and national security experience in the Senate has earned him a second look. And he has made the most of it.

The buzz among the inside handicappers last week was the prospect of a Kerry-Edwards ticket that would give the Democratic Party a North-South combination of solid experience and youthful exuberance. While it is much too early to anoint this duo, Mr. Edwards' performance so far has been at least a down payment for him on at least the vice presidential nomination.

One of the byproducts of his high-road modus operandi is that he has made no enemies among the other candidates, one of whom will be the presidential nominee if Mr. Edwards doesn't get the honor himself.

In most presidential nomination fights, the competitors say so many negative things about each other that the eventual winner dismisses the pack and looks elsewhere for his running mate. Only twice in the last 11 elections, once in each party, has an active competitor for the presidential nomination been so selected.

In 1960, John F. Kennedy, after a bitter debate within his campaign, jolted the Democratic convention by choosing Lyndon B. Johnson. LBJ had not actively competed against him in the primaries but tried to get the nomination himself with attacks on Mr. Kennedy's qualifications. Mr. Kennedy overlooked the jabs, convinced that he needed LBJ to win the South and the election, and he was right.

In 1980, the senior George Bush upset Ronald Reagan in the Iowa caucuses and further irritated him with a petulant debate performance in New Hampshire, refusing to let the other Republican candidates invited by Mr. Reagan join a debate with Mr. Bush. Mr. Bush also earned Mr. Reagan's disfavor by calling his economic plan "voodoo economics."

Mr. Reagan first turned to former President Gerald Ford to be his running mate, but when negotiations fell through, he reluctantly accepted Mr. Bush, who had said he would not take the vice presidential nomination. But he quickly ate his words, along with his "voodoo economics" characterization.

None of the other 20 running mates since 1960 was an active contender for his party's top spot. Nevertheless, Mr. Edwards' upbeat personality and non-offending words in the Democratic nomination fight could well earn him favorable consideration if one of his current rivals gets to fill out the party ticket.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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