First things first.
That is what John F. Kerry must have said to himself when he chose John Edwards as his running mate over alternatives with far more experience in government and far better credentials to take over as president on a moment's notice.
In picking Edwards, the first-term senator from North Carolina, the Democratic presidential candidate relied on the most obvious political criteria. He allied himself with the best campaigner in the 2004 field of candidates and the man with the largest personal following, after Kerry himself, in their party.
The choice had everything to do with Mission One, winning the election, and precious little to do with governing the nation.
In that respect, it is -- as Republicans were quick to point out -- a vivid contrast to the choice President Bush made four years ago in selecting Dick Cheney for his ticket. In campaign terms, Cheney brought almost nothing. He comes from Wyoming, a safe Republican state with only three electoral votes. He is a mediocre stump speaker.
What Cheney brought was an impressive governmental resume, as a former White House chief of staff, the No. 2 Republican leader in the House and the secretary of defense during the Persian Gulf War.
For the young governor of Texas, devoid of Washington experience, the choice of Cheney was an important boost in governance credentials. That Cheney has proved to be both influential and controversial comes as no surprise.
In Kerry's case, he obviously feels that his own Washington experience -- 19 years of Senate service, including a major role in foreign policy -- needs no bolstering. So Dick Gephardt, with his years as Democratic leader in the House, and Sen. Bob Graham, with his expertise in intelligence issues, were luxuries Kerry thought he did not need.
Instead, he went for the man who is most likely to add votes to the Democratic column by his personal campaigning. Edwards has shown an uncanny ability to connect with both core Democratic constituencies and independent voters in every campaign he has run. That is how he won his only Senate race against a Republican incumbent six years ago. And it is how he came from far behind to become Kerry's toughest challenger in contests from Iowa through Super Tuesday.
Edwards -- a skilled trial lawyer -- learns as he goes. His stump speech when I first saw him in New Hampshire early in 2003 was acceptable but not overwhelming. By the time he got back to New Hampshire, nine months later, it was a thing of beauty -- a populist depiction of "two Americas," divided between the privileged and the working people but devoid of the anger and frustration so often linked to populism.
Edwards knew he had found a theme that resonated, and he delivered the speech six or eight times a day, without variation, winning votes at nearly every stop.
I came away thinking that if Edwards had had Kerry's organization, he would have been the nominee. He out-campaigned Kerry face to face, notably at the Democratic dinner in Milwaukee three nights before the Wisconsin primary. But Raleigh, N.C., does not produce nearly as many skilled field operatives as Kerry's home town of Boston, and Edwards was basically out there alone, fighting an army of experienced Kennedy-Dukakis-Tsongas-Kerry workers.
The question in many minds was whether Kerry would be comfortable running with a man whose stump skills were as great as the ambitions that had carried him so far so fast. In Milwaukee, Kerry complained to his aides that Edwards's criticisms of his trade record were unfair -- even though they seemed mild to outsiders. But the bad blood was dissolved by political calculations that Edwards could help the ticket, not just by forcing Bush to work for North Carolina but -- more important -- in Appalachian parts of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania and the small towns of the Middle West.
The partnership has a sounder basis than many outsiders realize. In private conversations with reporters early in their competition for the presidential nomination, Edwards was always complimentary of Kerry, describing him, along with Gephardt, as a "solid" contender who would make a fully capable president. At the time, Kerry was more skeptical of Edwards's credentials, saying he had not been overly impressed by his Senate work. But in one such conversation, Teresa Heinz Kerry broke in to say of Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, "She's terrific." To which her husband agreed.
This ticket was forged back in January, when Kerry and Edwards finished one-two in the Iowa caucuses. The Democrats could have done a lot worse.