Edwards' decision

March 02, 2004|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK -- Today's Super Tuesday voting in 10 states, expected to tighten Sen. John Kerry's grip on the Democratic presidential nomination over Sen. John Edwards, may also clarify the prospects of a Kerry-Edwards ticket.

Anticipation of such a ticket, widespread before Sunday's televised debate in New York, was cooled by heated exchanges between the two candidates during that debate. Mr. Edwards displayed an aggressiveness previously held in check in his proclaimed determination not to attack any fellow Democrat.

But with the chance that Mr. Kerry could sweep most or all 10 of today's contests from New England to New York, Maryland, Georgia, Ohio, Minnesota and California, Mr. Edwards obviously decided he had to go closer to the edge of confrontation on issues such as trade, though not in personal terms.

Until the New York debate, Mr. Edwards' restraint had been seen as a way of preserving the option of becoming Mr. Kerry's running mate if his own presidential bid fell short. In the debate, Mr. Edwards forcefully continued to deny that he harbored such aspirations, and his conspicuous effort to draw policy differences with Mr. Kerry lent more credence to that position.

Presidential candidates almost always deny interest in the vice presidency. But Mr. Edwards, in advance of today's Democratic contests, has already scheduled stops starting tomorrow in the four Southern states that vote a week from today -- in Texas, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. It's evidence that he's not ready to give up on the presidential nomination.

If that decision holds after tonight, it is not likely to sit well with Mr. Kerry, forcing him to continue campaigning in what could be the most contentious week yet between him and Mr. Edwards. Whipping the North Carolina senator in his own region not only would finish him off in the presidential race but possibly diminish the argument for putting him on the ticket as a magnet for Dixie votes in November.

The clash in the New York debate was an abrupt shift in the tone of the state's primary until then. With both candidates spread thin by trying to touch down in all 10 Super Tuesday states, the New York primary, in which 236 delegates are at stake, bore little resemblance to the donnybrooks of New York's political past.

The shortage of major differences between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards on issues of particular concern to New York voters reduced the prospect of fireworks between them -- until Sunday's debate, stirred by the famously pugnacious New York press.

Nevertheless, according to Chung Seto, the state Democratic Party's executive director, there is rare agreement among New York Democrats that beating President Bush in November is far more important than which Democrat is nominated.

"In the past we've had very heated contests," Mr. Seto recalls. "I don't think this is one of them. We have two very focused candidates, and with everyone focused on beating George Bush, we have a very friendly primary."

Although the New York contest may seem a 100-yard dash to voters barely tuning in now, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards have had resemblances of campaigns operating in the state for nearly a year, obscured by the national focus on the early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire.

Mr. Edwards actually outdid Mr. Kerry in the early phase, collecting enough petitions to qualify for the ballot in all of the state's 29 congressional districts, as did the campaign of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, the early front-runner in New York. Mr. Kerry, by contrast, qualified in only 20.

Before Dr. Dean's implosion, he was well ahead with an unprecedented grass-roots organization. According to Ethan Geto, the Dean state chairman then, it had a base of 70,000 contributors and volunteers, many of whom remain interested in maintaining the Dean "movement" that the former governor says he intends to build.

Mr. Geto says this base now is divided on whether to vote for Dr. Dean, whose name remains on the ballot, in the hope of winning enough delegates here to give him a voice at the July party convention in Boston, or throw their support to Mr. Edwards in today's primary.

Either way, the critical answer that may come out Super Tuesday is whether it will be the end of the road for Mr. Edwards or, if he continues, whether it jeopardizes the possibility of a Kerry-Edwards ticket.

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

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