Dems' duo not a big hit on the road

August 04, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WHEELING, W.Va. - Like the successful Democratic road show of Bill Clinton and Al Gore rolling out of the party's New York convention in 1992, John Kerry and John Edwards hit the highways together last weekend directly out of Boston, hoping to find the same winning chemistry.

Traveling by bus through the key swing states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio before splitting up, the Democratic running mates sought to emulate the camaraderie that marked the Clinton-Gore motorcade a dozen years ago.

Despite much backslapping, hugging and words of mutual admiration among Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards and their accompanying families, with actor Ben Affleck thrown in, the rollout did not quite achieve the level of euphoria of the Clinton-Gore political meal on wheels.

One obvious reason was that this time around, the 2004 Democratic nominees had already campaigned as a team in advance of the convention. Mr. Kerry's decision to disclose his choice of Mr. Edwards weeks before the party gathering in Boston clearly took some of the edge off their post-convention bus tour.

In addition, at least from early signs, the Kerry-Edwards partnership seemed more an older brother-younger brother relationship than did the Clinton-Gore team of two same-generation Southern boys well matched physically and intellectually. At 60, Mr. Kerry is nine years older than Mr. Edwards and looks and sounds it.

In 1992, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore bonded so quickly and obviously that they became inseparable on their first tour together, schmoozing by the hour on Mr. Clinton's bus and working up a stump shtick that wowed crowds along the way. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, by contrast, seemed a bit awkward at times.

Mr. Gore, generally regarded as stiff and humorless, was a surprise in 1992 when teamed with the animated Mr. Clinton, firing up the crowds with an entertaining riff against the administration of the senior George Bush that ended with him asking: "What time is it?" To which audiences soon learned to shout back: "It's time for them to go!"

Late one night, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore schmoozed so long on Mr. Clinton's bus that a horde of weary staffers and reporters desperate for bedtime took to rocking the vehicle and calling to them: "What time is it? It's time for us to go!"

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, in the first days, anyway, fell short of the same magic, in good part because Mr. Kerry, for all his striving, lacks Mr. Clinton's easy rapport with crowds and has a sense of humor and timing that often falls flat.

At a large rally at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg the other night, for example, Mr. Kerry blurted: "John and I are humbled to be with Ben Affleck," an Academy Award winner many years their junior, while "John and I are honored just to be nominated."

Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards, individually, tried to engage the crowds by chronicling failures of the junior Bush administration and then encouraging them to join in forced chants - Mr. Edwards calling out "Hope is on the way!" and Mr. Kerry modifying it to "Help is on the way!" Neither pitch seemed to much energize the crowds.

Mr. Edwards' new role as second banana on the ticket seemed to take some steam out of the dynamic stump delivery that had fired up primary audiences earlier this year and won him a place on the Democratic ticket.

Finally, in 1992, the nominees' wives, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore, struck a responsive chord with Democratic listeners as a pair of attractive, smart women. Teresa Heinz Kerry and Elizabeth Edwards got warm receptions too, although Mr. Kerry's wife came off a bit quirky at times with her unusual accent and a tendency to ramble.

In fairness, this first joint Kerry-Edwards post-convention road trip was a shakedown for the grueling three months ahead to Election Day. Other events, especially the nominees' debates in the fall, doubtless will carry more weight with voters than the chemistry between Mr. Kerry and his running mate and their families.

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

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