Edwards's Credentials a Likely Target
Kerry Campaign Overlooked Inexperience for Charisma
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 7, 2004; Page A01
In announcing Sen. John Edwards (N.C.) as his vice presidential running mate yesterday, Sen. John F. Kerry added one of the party's brightest stars and most talented campaigners to the Democratic ticket, but he left himself open to criticism that he had passed up candidates with far more experience for someone who lacks a significant legislative or executive record.
The selection of a vice president often tells as much about a candidate and his approach to a presidential race as any other decision of the campaign. The choice of Edwards suggests that Kerry is secure enough to have picked a running mate widely judged to be the more effective campaigner and confident enough not to fear comparisons.
The decision also points to the Massachusetts senator's belief that his own foreign policy and national security credentials -- Vietnam War veteran and longtime member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- will be enough to reassure voters of the Democrats' capacity to protect the country in a era of terrorism. With Edwards, he adds an eloquent voice for an entirely different set of issues that Democrats want to push into the forefront of the campaign, including anxiety over the economy and worries about the rising cost of health care.
Kerry is gambling that Edwards's campaign skills will count more than credentials in the next four months, that the excitement Edwards helps to generate will have a more profound impact on voters than the absence of any particular achievements in the Senate.
Yesterday's announcement helped frame the election against President Bush and Vice President Cheney, with the Democrats determined to make the campaign a choice between change and a status quo that many Americans say is unacceptable, according to polls.
Republicans were quick to suggest that the direction the Democrats want to take the country is much further to the left than the voters will tolerate and that the new ticket symbolizes the leftward drift of the party since President Bill Clinton left office. "There is a brand on this ticket now as the most liberal ticket ever," said Matthew Dowd, chief strategist of the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Democrats believe the addition of Edwards gives the party the opportunity to put North Carolina into competition in November, along with another southern state or two. There is no guarantee that Edwards can deliver states for Kerry, but his presence on the ticket could boost the chances of Democratic Senate candidates in the South, a region where Kerry's northeastern roots do not play well.
Democrats also see Edwards, who was reared in a small mill town in North Carolina, as complementing Kerry in other ways, particularly his potential appeal to small-town and rural voters in midwestern battlegrounds where the Democrats fared badly four years ago.
All of that, however, is a tall order to put on the shoulders of a vice presidential candidate, and Republicans believe Democrats will find nothing but disappointment as they pursue those assumptions.
In the end, the choice of a vice president rarely determines the outcome of an election, as George H.W. Bush's selection of Dan Quayle proved in 1988. But that does not diminish the significance of the choice, both from the way a presidential nominee approaches the decision to the initial impact it has on a political party and the voters.
Judged by those criteria, Kerry won high marks yesterday, even privately by some Republicans. Edwards was the overwhelming favorite of the party's rank-and-file voters and the announcement that he had been chosen sent a jolt of energy and enthusiasm through the party that had been missing in the Kerry campaign.
Democrats hope their ticket will be able to ride that enthusiasm through the national convention in Boston at the end of the month to a clear lead in the polls, as Clinton was able to do when he picked Al Gore as his running mate in 1992. Republicans acknowledge that the president and Cheney probably will fall well behind by early August, having sent out a memo before the announcement predicting a Kerry bounce in the polls.
But their assessment is that the Democratic ticket will not play well over time as voters begin to weigh their choices in the fall and as they size Edwards up against Cheney. "I think in the end, it's going to play out better on our side," said Vin Weber, a former House member and an official in Bush's reelection campaign.
Weber predicted that the course of Edwards's vice presidential candidacy will encompass the overall presidential campaign. "If voters go to the polls believing that America is at war, with terrorism and at war in Iraq, I believe they're going to reelect President Bush," he said. "If they go to the polls thinking about other things, it's going to be very close."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company