Running mates

July 07, 2004

FLIRTATIONS with Republican John McCain aside, the selection of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as John Kerry's running mate seems so natural that one can only wonder why it took months to make the decision. In the Democratic primaries, the 51-year-old Mr. Edwards proved a sizzling campaigner. He wasn't a Washington insider, or a multi-star general, or even a candidate who necessarily would broaden the party's base. Yet his "two Americas" message excited hard-core Democrats and working-class voters this spring in a way that Mr. Kerry hasn't always been able to match.

Energetic and charismatic, Mr. Edwards brings a gift for public speaking and a connection to average Americans that helps balance Mr. Kerry's more patrician image. The desire for political equilibrium must transcend party lines. Consider, for instance, George W. Bush's own selection of Dick Cheney. Where Mr. Cheney brought gravitas and foreign policy experience to the relatively youthful Mr. Bush, Mr. Edwards offers a spark of electricity and sex appeal to a steady and serious top of the ticket.

Born in South Carolina and raised in North Carolina, Mr. Edwards is a classic self-made man, New South-style. The son of a textile worker, he's a product of public schools and hard work. He has made millions of dollars as a trial attorney. In the primary campaign, the greatest knock against him was his inexperience, yet his six years in the Senate have given him a lot more exposure to national security issues than Mr. Bush could claim in the last presidential election.

Republicans will no doubt complain that Mr. Edwards is just a one-term senator - and has spent a lot of time away from that job while running for president. They will mock his ambition, his good looks, and the fact that he's an attorney. But these criticisms seem minor. Mr. Edwards mounted a credible campaign for president. As a candidate for vice president, the fact that he's a product of the private sector can be seen as an asset - another way to balance out the professional politician running at the top of the ticket.

Whether Mr. Edwards helps Mr. Kerry win votes in the South or in the Rust Belt is something the political strategists can debate. For voters, the choice raises questions that will need to be answered in the weeks ahead. What does the choice say about Mr. Kerry? What role would Mr. Edwards play in a Kerry administration? (How, for instance, will they address personal differences in matters such as foreign trade?) But most important, is Mr. Edwards ready to handle the job of president should something ever happen to Mr. Kerry?

There was a time when vice presidential candidates were expected to do little more than deliver a home state at the polls and stay away from controversy. No more. As Al Gore and the even more influential Mr. Cheney have shown, vice presidents can be prime movers in an administration. Mr. Edwards may seem a good choice today, but voters will need to hear a lot more from - and about - him if they are to make an informed choice this November.

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