Edwards' audition

March 01, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Politics is full of unintended consequences. For example, what started out as a debate in Los Angeles the other night among the four surviving Democratic presidential candidates turned out to be an audition.

As it played out, much of the 90-minute exchange became a showcase for Sen. John Edwards to demonstrate why he would be an ideal running mate for front-running Sen. John Kerry, and why a Kerry-Edwards ticket would make sense for the Democratic Party.

Try as Mr. Edwards did to point out his differences with Mr. Kerry, what came through was how relatively minor they are. When, for example, Mr. Edwards picked up on the Republican charge that Mr. Kerry had taken campaign contributions from special interests, Mr. Kerry calmly replied that "I don't think there fundamentally is a difference" because half of Mr. Edwards' money came from fellow trial lawyers. Then he added, "I don't ever suggest that he is beholden to them." Both he and Mr. Edwards, Mr. Kerry noted, favor barring lobbyists from contributing to legislators they lobbied.

To Mr. Edwards, sitting close beside him, Mr. Kerry allowed: "I know he's looking for some differences because you need them. But there's really not a difference in this race between us in our commitment to get the lobbying out."

On the North American Free Trade Agreement and other such pacts, which Mr. Edwards opposes and has emphasized as a principal difference between them, Mr. Kerry brushed the contention aside. He and Mr. Edwards, he said, have "exactly the same position" on wanting higher labor and environmental standards in such agreements.

When Mr. Edwards argued that as a Southerner he is the best candidate to carry Dixie for the Democrats in the fall, Mr. Kerry reminded the audience that he had beaten Mr. Edwards in the primaries in Tennessee and Virginia. And when Mr. Edwards cited exit polls indicating he ran more strongly among independents and Republicans, Mr. Kerry said he has polls that show otherwise.

Even in a clear difference over the death penalty -- Mr. Edwards for, Mr. Kerry against -- Mr. Edwards bought into Mr. Kerry's argument that DNA evidence should be used to avoid miscarriages of justice.

At the same time, the debate brought out areas of agreement between the two: both for civil unions and against gay marriage but also against a constitutional amendment barring it; for greatly extending health care insurance; for sticking to their votes for President Bush's war resolution but also their post-invasion criticism of his policies in dealing with Iraq.

Through all this, the discourse was restrained and noncombative, as if both men were determined to avoid not only serious division between them but also any bad blood that would have to be mopped up later if circumstances threw them together.

At the end of the debate, each man was asked whether anything had been said that would make it "impossible" to run with the other on the Democratic ticket. Each artfully and good-humoredly dodged the question.

Mr. Edwards, grinning broadly, observed: "An Edwards-Kerry ticket would be powerful." Mr. Kerry, also smiling, thanked Mr. Edwards "for the consideration," but said only that he was focused on winning the presidential nomination and had no list of possible running mates. But a moment later he called Mr. Edwards "a great communicator" and "a charming guy."

The physical placement of Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry next to each other at the debate table, with also-rans the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich to Mr. Edwards' right, often out of the camera's eye, gave TV watchers a visible preview of the two leading Democrats as a team. They came off as amiable and comfortable with each other.

The night's "audition" also helped condition voters to what has become common speculation -- that the Democratic ticket will indeed be Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, in that order. If Mr. Kerry is the nominee, he will be under heavy public pressure to choose the appealing but also eminently respectful North Carolina senator and son of a millworker to give a more homey touch to his own Massachusetts-bred patrician manner.

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

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