To begin with, there's the dicey matter of the all-important first shot of John Kerry and John Edwards and their wives getting off the campaign plane. The new running mates and running matrons emerge with a triumphant wave. But at the top of the mobile staircase looms a large, unfortunate sign:
This refers to the aviation services firm that runs the small airport, not to the net worth (several times over) of the candidates who hopscotched the Rust Belt on Wednesday in an effort to connect with Real Americans. Luckily, not a lot of people are here to greet the plane and catch the irony, just a smattering of local veterans and -- the word "d'oh!" comes to mind -- about 50 or 60 reporters and photographers.
This is not a good start to the Kerry-Edwards Double-Date Tour of Real America (nor is it a good start for the advance man, or former advance man who didn't catch the Million Air sign). Because this day is all about visuals, the first chance to see Kerry and Edwards together on the tarmac, stage, TV screen, to note their body language, glean clues about their chemistry.
Initial impressions can be a potent, perhaps even fatal component of how well a running mate wears. Dan Quayle never recovered from his disastrous unveiling before the 1988 Republican National Convention, at which he jumped around the stage, bug-eyed, over-grinning, poking the stunned-looking nominee, George Bush, in the chest.
Conversely, Bill Clinton's first shots with the serious but youthful Al Gore conveyed a can-do vigor that underscored the campaign's central theme of Change. The shots exuded the aura of Young Guns -- the actual headline of that week's Newsweek.
The Double-Date Tour -- which will last through the weekend -- started in Pittsburgh with a photo shoot at the 88-acre Heinz estate, where the prospective first and second families spent the night. They proceeded to Ohio, to the heart of Kucinich Country, for the day's centerpiece event, a waterfront rally under threatening skies.
Balloons, flags, signs, loud music, all that. Before the candidates arrive, the crowd of 10,000 tells who they want ("John Kerry!") and when they want him ("right now!"). And they learn that the eyes of a great nation are focused squarely on Cleveland (according to Mayor Jane Campbell) and that the Republicans care only about the rich (according to some Democratic candidate for something).
The Kerrys and Edwardses take the stage to U2's "Beautiful Day," just in time for the noon news. They are a fist-pumping, thumbs-upping testament to good barbering and good dentistry, a Brady Bunch hodgepodge of six toddlers, young adults and stepkids, evenly divided between blonds and brunets, boys and girls.
John Edwards seems to be consciously amping himself down, restraining the energy and charm that won over so many voters during the primaries. He seems in full compliance with the Don't Outshine Kerry memo. His slight hunch contrasts with the tippy-toe bounciness that marked his primary season appearances. He looks physically smaller, and not just because he's next to the taller Kerry. His hair, sprayed down at a sharp 45-degree angle, lacks its usual boyish moppiness.
Kerry is laughing freely, his bearing loose and unburdened, as you'd expect of someone who's just made a huge decision (which has played to generally good reviews). He makes faces at the Edwardses' adorable 4-year-old son, Jack, the day's show-stealer along with adorable 6-year-old Emma Claire. They giggle, dance and jump around the stage, like Dan Quayle in '88. Kerry's terrific with kids, perhaps more at ease than with adults. After the families finished their photo-op in Pittsburgh, Kerry scooped Jack up and ran several feet, while the boy giggled.
Teresa Heinz Kerry speaks first. She greets her "neighbors" from Cleveland and reminds them that she is from Pittsburgh. This draws boos.
Big rivalry between Cleveland and Pittsburgh, it turns out. Browns-Steelers thing. Not the best way to warm up a rally of 10,000 people.
"Don't get sore, don't get sore" Heinz Kerry says, her auburn hair flying in her face.
"C'mon, don't get sore," she says.
More boos. All in good fun. Maybe.
John Kerry starts his speech by declaring that the only one who had a better weekend than he and John Edwards was Spider-Man. To which two people in the crowd yell, "Michael Moore!"
"Michael Moore," Kerry says, shrugging, grimacing slightly, shaking his hands back and forth in the maybe, maybe-not gesture. Put him down as undecided on the "Fahrenheit 9/11" filmmaker.
Then he marvels at Jack and Emma Claire's antics in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night. They were in the pool within five minutes, he says. "And Jack does a mean cannonball, lemme tell you." He tells this story:
After Kerry called Edwards in Washington to offer him the running-mate job, Emma Claire got on the phone to Elizabeth Edwards, who was in North Carolina, and said, "Mommy, Senator Kerry picked Daddy." Jack grabbed the phone and said, "Mommy, Mommy, I can swim with my head out of the water."
"Now, Jack's got his priorities wired, doesn't he?" Kerry says to laughter.
He hits more laugh lines than usual. And -- a most un-Kerryeque phenomenon, he is laughing at his own jokes.
"We've got better vision," Kerry says, comparing his ticket to the Republicans'. "We've got better ideas, we've got real plans. We've got a better sense of what's happening to America." This sounds like standard stump speech pap until he curve-balls. "And we've got better hair," he says.
He'll say it again later at a rally in Dayton.
Kerry introduces Edwards, who leads with a fail-safe Jack vignette.
He'd just overheard Jack ask why there are so many American flags here. "I've got an answer for my son," Edwards says, and the audience awaits a punch line. "It's because when John Kerry is president of the United States, we're going to restore real American values."
The applause feels obligatory.
Edwards's voice is lower than usual. He is almost subdued.
There is music, cheering and rain that disperses about a third of the crowd by the time the speeches end. Confetti goes up and comes down, much of it into the ample heads of hair onstage.
In Dayton, Kerry will remove his suit coat (Edwards-like) and Edwards will keep his on (Kerry-like). Later the Kerry-Edwards Double-Date Tour will proceed to Florida on a plane that can only be called Hair Force One.