Home crowd rallies for Edwards

N.C. gives warm welcome to favorite son and Kerry, but some have quibbles

July 11, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RALEIGH, N.C. - On her tip-toes tying red, white and blue balloons to a sign on Hillsborough Street, Nina Szlosberg helped prepare a big small-town welcome yesterday for John Edwards, the local hero whom John Kerry picked last week to run as his No. 2 on the Democratic presidential ticket.

"We want to say welcome home, we are proud of you, you have put North Carolina on the map, and we are going to work hard to make you vice president and president," Szlosberg, 43, said over her shoulder as she affixed the balloons to an American flag along the motorcade route.

Thousands of cheering supporters gathered under a sweltering sun on the campus of North Carolina State University - his alma mater - to send that message to Edwards yesterday, as he swept into town with Kerry after a four-day tour through battleground states to showcase their new political partnership.

"We're here because we're proud," Rep. David E. Price, a Durham Democrat, told the crowd, a sea of people estimated as large as 25,000 that stretched across the university's grassy Court of the Carolinas, as a TV news helicopter buzzed overhead and music blared.

It was a triumphant homecoming for Edwards, the first-term senator and former trial lawyer whose working-class Robbins, N.C., roots are seen as a welcome addition to the candidacy of the fourth-term Massachusetts senator, the patrician son of a diplomat.

"We have John Kerry, who comes from means, but knows what public service and sacrifice means," said Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Raleigh Democrat who helped introduce the pair. "And John Edwards is the hope of America: The son of a mill worker who went through a public education system and rose up to be a millionaire."

Edwards beamed out at the crowd, basking in his home state's adulation with his signature "thumbs-up" pump, and seeking to wrap Kerry in his popularity.

Saying that Southerners tell friends that an outsider deserves acceptance by saying, "He's with me," Edwards said, pointing to Kerry: "I came here to tell you that this man right here - I'm with him."

Kerry said he and Edwards shared the same values, and asked the crowd: "Will you let me borrow John Edwards for at least four years?"

As the crowd began to chant "Eight!" Kerry - in a nod to Edwards' larger White House ambitions - said, "How about 16?"

Hard work begins

While the event had the exuberant air of a victory celebration, the hard work of the presidential race lies ahead, as Kerry and Edwards split up to campaign separately.

Kerry and Edwards face the challenge of sustaining the momentum from last week's vice presidential announcement in the two weeks leading up to the Democratic convention in Boston.

National polls still show Kerry in close competition with President Bush. Some surveys show that Kerry got a bounce from selecting Edwards as his No. 2, but an Associated Press/Ipsos poll taken July 5-7 found a bigger boost for Bush. The AP poll, which began before Kerry picked Edwards, showed Bush with 49 percent support to Kerry's 45 percent. In a June 7-9 AP poll, Bush drew 45 percent support, and Kerry 42 percent.

The two candidates will likely have to answer more questions about whether Edwards' relative inexperience in politics - particularly on foreign policy and defense issues - make him a poor choice for Kerry's No. 2.

And the pair will begin to test the theory, espoused by many Democratic strategists, that Edwards can translate his populist message and popularity among more moderate voters into an advantage for Kerry among those who might otherwise find him too liberal and removed from ordinary people's concerns.

The Kerry campaign is set to begin airing a new TV advertisement tomorrow that features Edwards campaigning for Kerry. It is slated to run next week here and in battleground states..

Still on the fence

At the Crabtree Valley Mall just a few miles northeast of N.C. State, Greg Parsons wasn't so sure that Edwards will be an asset. A 39-year-old factory worker from Clayton, Parsons said he voted for Bush in 2000, but blames him for a deteriorating economic situation that put him out of a job for six months last year and has hurt many of his friends.

That Edwards "knows what it's like to be a working person" appeals to Parsons, but he hasn't decided whether he could vote for somebody who doesn't support a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage - a proposal the Senate began debating on Friday, and to which both Kerry and Edwards are opposed.

Both support rights for gay couples, including civil unions, which they believe should be handled by the states, but not same-sex marriage.

Less for than against

As he parked his car and headed to the rally yesterday, Steven Gohr, 43, a graphic designer from nearby Graham, exhibited none of the local pride for Edwards that drew so many.

"Edwards has had a lot of absences and missed a lot of votes, and he's pretty inexperienced. He was running for president from the minute he got" to Washington, Gohr complained.

But Gohr - clad in a black T-shirt bearing a red octagonal sign that said "BUSH" instead of "STOP" - said he was desperate to get the current occupant out of the White House.

"I think Bush is incompetent," Gohr said, "so anyone can do a better job than him."

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