For Kerry, electability outweighed experience

Election 2004 -- The Democratic Ticket

Kerry Selects Edwards

July 07, 2004|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - In picking Sen. John Edwards as his running mate, Sen. John Kerry put electability first.

Edwards could help the Democratic nominee attract fresh support from women, younger voters and African-Americans, energize Kerry's prospects in Midwest battleground states and provide a sharp contrast in the fall debate with Vice President Dick Cheney, according to interviews with Kerry campaign officials, independent analysts and strategists in both parties.

But Edwards lacks the experience and national-security credentials that Kerry's campaign had earlier mentioned as primary qualifications for someone who might be called upon to assume the presidency in a time of war.

Yesterday, though, Kerry said, "John Edwards is ready for this job. He is ready for this job." As evidence, he mentioned Edwards' membership on the Senate Intelligence committee, where he has served for three years, and his campaign proposals for fighting bioterrorism.

Choosing a running mate is often seen as a nominee's first "presidential" decision, and Kerry's was revealing in several ways.

He heeded prominent members of his circle of advisers who were pushing him to pick Edwards - a group that included Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and consultants Bob Shrum and Tad Devine (who formerly worked for Edwards and unsuccessfully promoted him as Al Gore's running mate four years ago) - despite their recent rivalry for the nomination and a personal relationship that has been less than warm.

A number of Democrats were heartened that he felt secure enough to pick someone whose superior skills as a campaigner posed a threat to his competitive nature, if not his ego.

However, Kerry's self-confidence, and willingness to share the spotlight with his choice, may have limits. He took the unusual step of making yesterday's announcement without his running mate at his side. The two did meet up later for a private dinner at Kerry's wife's estate outside Pittsburgh, and are to make their public debut today.

Strategists in both parties gave Kerry high marks for the way he reached his decision, which surprised some insiders in spite of weeks of publicity that made Edwards seem the predictable choice. The campaign's ability to run an efficient, and virtually leakproof, selection process passed a test of leadership and management that presidential candidates often fail, they said.

"Overall, it's a great pick, but it's not the safe choice," said Joe Trippi, formerly Howard Dean's campaign manager. He said he expected Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, who is much closer to Kerry personally and far more experienced than Edwards, to be selected.

"Edwards is not a career politician. He went in for one term and was ready to leave. And I think that's going to matter against someone like Cheney," said the consultant.

At one level, picking Edwards was a traditional exercise in ticket-balancing: He will be the third southerner in the past 44 years to join a national slate headed by a Democrat from Massachusetts. (Lyndon Johnson and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas were the others.)

Edwards' crowd-pleasing appeal is expected to enhance Kerry's poll ratings heading into this month's Democratic convention.

But running mates seldom make the difference in a presidential election.

"It will be a choice between the two people at the top," said Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist.

Nor is it clear that Edwards will be able to help the Democrats carry his home state of North Carolina.

"Bush may still win North Carolina. But at a minimum, it makes it more competitive ... and really unifies the Democrats in that state," said Black, an expert in southern politics. President Bush is to campaign today in North Carolina, which he won by 13 percentage points in 2000.

Since Edwards isn't likely to help Kerry close the gap with Bush when it comes to fighting terrorism, "Kerry must feel that he himself as a candidate passes the foreign policy and national security threshold with voters," said Kenneth Baer, who advised Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the last Democratic vice presidential nominee. Most polling has shown that Bush holds an edge over Kerry when voters are asked whom they trust more to lead the anti-terror campaign.

Baer predicted that Edwards would help the ticket in parts of the Midwest that resemble the South politically, including southern Ohio and downstate Illinois. Edwards would also increase enthusiasm among traditionally Democratic African-American voters.

In the presidential primaries, Edwards attracted support from independent voters, and he might help Kerry extend his reach to that swing group this fall, Democrats said.

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