With Edwards pick, Kerry puts politics first

July 07, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - As prospective Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry approached his choice of a vice presidential running mate, he was faced with a familiar challenge: Should he pick an individual who could help him win in November or one who, if he wins, could help him govern most effectively?

It's customary for a presidential nominee to quote the standard platitude that he is looking for the ticket mate who is "best qualified to take over the country if anything should happen me." It is a yardstick more often than not bypassed as a candidate looks for the one who figures to help him carry a certain region or state or fill some real or perceived weakness in his own political rM-isumM-i.

In choosing Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Mr. Kerry has done just that - selected a running mate who, on the basis of his own presidential bid in the 2004 Democratic primaries, offers an abundance of energy and charisma that has been in short supply in Mr. Kerry's campaign.

Had Mr. Kerry decided on the best-qualified candidate in terms of governmental experience, he might well have selected Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the House Democratic leader for more than a decade, or veteran Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who was his state's governor before that. Both were said to be on Mr. Kerry's short list.

Instead, he yielded to the popular choice in his party in picking Mr. Edwards, whose dazzling performance in the primaries made him runner-up to Mr. Kerry. His essentially positive campaign style, winning smile, boyish manner and populist message of "two Americas, one for the rich and privileged and one for everybody else," resonated solidly with Democratic and independent audiences.

Mr. Edwards, after less than a full term in the Senate and having held no previous public office, can hardly be advertised as best qualified to assume the presidency if fate were to intervene. His selling points are his Southern roots running with a Yankee liberal and his pizazz as a speaker, the injection of which could bring glitz to a Kerry campaign notably lacking it.

Although Mr. Edwards won only one primary this year, in his native South Carolina, he demonstrated voter appeal outside his home region in finishing a surprising second to Mr. Kerry in the Iowa caucuses and remaining the last serious challenger standing.

One aspect of his survival until then was his decision to stay out of the intramural slashing that went on in Iowa and later, mostly among Mr. Kerry, Mr. Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean - a verbal slugfest that drew negative comments from many voters. Mr. Edwards not only came out of the melee looking good, but his temperate demeanor appeared to persuade his fellow candidates to take a higher road themselves.

By largely adhering to it, Mr. Edwards avoided the fate of many presidential candidates who get so scarred themselves, and so alienate the eventual nominee, as to rule out the possibility of being chosen as a running mate. That was one factor, though not the only one, that removed Dr. Dean from the list of vice presidential prospects.

However, accentuating the positive, as Mr. Edwards did in the primaries, is not usually the role of a vice presidential nominee in a general election. Rather, tradition and strategy call for him to be point man in attacking the opposition.

While playing nice toward his fellow Democrats in the primaries, Mr. Edwards displayed plenty of fire against President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney. And stylistically, his rM-isumM-i as the small-town lawyer taking on the big special interests in behalf of the little guy offers a sharp contrast to the often dour man from Halliburton he will be seeking to replace.

For all this, the significance of a running mate is always secondary, perhaps especially this year. Polls indicate that the election essentially will be a referendum on Mr. Bush, and Mr. Kerry's strongest suit so far appears to be that he is not Mr. Bush. Having Mr. Edwards running with him won't change that point, but it could raise the enthusiasm level for the ticket.

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

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