The South and beyond

Edwards' impact

July 09, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- When Sen. John Edwards was competing against Sen. John Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination in the primaries this year, he argued in his dramatic stump speech that he could win everywhere, not just in his native South.

President Bush was his oratorical target then, and Mr. Edwards, with his conspicuous Dixie drawl, would tell his audiences that he could beat him "in the East, in the West, in the North and -- talking like this -- in the South!"

Yet in the primaries, the only state Mr. Edwards won in a competitive race was South Carolina, where he lived until his family moved to North Carolina. But his championing of the middle class in his pitch for "two Americas -- one for the rich and one for everybody else" also resonated strongly in states such as Iowa and Wisconsin, where he ran closely behind Mr. Kerry.

For this reason, Mr. Kerry's choice of Mr. Edwards as his running mate has met with broad approval among fellow Democrats for more than the regional balance he provides the ticket headed by a Massachusetts liberal. Although Kerry strategists say Mr. Edwards' candidacy gives them a shot at North Carolina, his greater potential value is in giving the Kerry campaign an energy and charisma transfusion that can help wherever he goes.

By plan or coincidence, Mr. Bush was campaigning in North Carolina the day after Mr. Kerry announced his choice, and he wasted no time declaring categorically he will win the state, which he carried easily in 2000. He also took the occasion to launch the expected attack on Mr. Edwards, a first-term senator, as unprepared to assume the presidency if need be.

When a local reporter asked the president how Mr. Edwards would compare with the man he is expected to debate in the fall, Vice President Dick Cheney, Mr. Bush snapped without hesitation: "Dick Cheney can be president." Mr. Kerry quickly pointed out that Mr. Bush, when he ran for president in 2000, didn't have any more experience in public office than Mr. Edwards does now.

At the very least, putting Mr. Edwards on the Democratic ticket is likely to oblige the Bush campaign to spend more time and resources than previously planned in North Carolina and several other Southern states where the Kerry campaign plans to send Mr. Edwards.

In his first days on the stump with Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards quickly settled into the second-banana role, taking care to talk about the leadership qualifications of the man who picked him. But once they go their separate ways, he will be freer to resume his winning, free-wheeling, rags-to-riches message that was so effective in making him the emotional hit of the primaries.

Unlike some previous running mates, such as Dan Quayle, whose own youthful exuberance got him in trouble and led the George H. W. Bush campaign to send him mostly to secondary markets in 1988 and 1992, Mr. Edwards can be expected to take on a full share of the campaigning in and out of the South.

The timing of Mr. Edwards' selection nearly three weeks before the opening of the Democratic National Convention in Boston has given the Democratic ticket a fast start, even more so than the Clinton-Gore bus tour directly out of the 1992 convention in New York.

Democrats like to recall that John F. Kennedy's choice of Southerner Lyndon B. Johnson in 1960, and LBJ's aggressive campaigning in Dixie, were often credited thereafter with sealing JFK's narrow victory over Richard M. Nixon that year.

But that is one of the few examples of the choice of a running mate ever touted as having been decisive in a presidential election's outcome. If Mr. Edwards proves to make a similar difference, it more likely will be in his personal rather than regional appeal, shoring up the Democratic ticket well beyond the South.

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

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