President Bush and Vice President Cheney bid Sen. John Edwards a cordial welcome to the presidential race as Democrat John F. Kerry's running mate, while the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee immediately challenged the North Carolinian's character, competence and ideology.
"I welcome Senator Edwards on the ticket," Bush said in the Oval Office yesterday morning when asked about the pick. Adding that Cheney called Edwards to extend a personal welcome, Bush said: "I look forward to a good, spirited contest."
That sportsmanlike welcome was preceded by a statement from the RNC calling Edwards "a disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers." The Bush campaign followed by raising doubts about Edwards's experience and branding him an extremist: "The Kerry/Edwards ticket represents one of the most divisive and out of the mainstream tickets for president."
The two-part Republican response, in which Bush and Cheney welcomed Edwards while others ridiculed him, came as the Bush campaign acknowledged that the addition of the populist senator was a politically sound choice and one that added energy to the Democratic ticket. The Bush campaign said Edwards was "the most politically expedient choice" and suggested he was popular in polls. "Kerry's poll-tested running mate was selected to help Kerry close the 'charm gap' with voters," the campaign said.
Maryland's GOP governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., called Edwards "very charismatic" and an "excellent campaigner" reminiscent of Bill Clinton. While branding the Democrat too liberal and tainted by being a trial lawyer, he said the choice "probably further widens the gender gap" in Democrats' favor.
Bush's advisers moved to raise expectations for the new ticket. On Monday, chief Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd sent out a memo cautioning that "a challenger's vice presidential selection and nominating convention can have a dramatic (if often short-lived) effect on the head-to-head poll numbers." Dowd argued that by historical standards, Kerry should have a 15 percentage point lead in the polls after his convention.
Bush's aides spent months planning yesterday's response, to try to avoid a repeat of the disorganized response to then-Vice President Al Gore's unexpected selection of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.) in 2000. The RNC had set up a Web site, www.kerrypicksedwards.com, which linked to a 28-page evisceration titled "Who Is John Edwards?" The party also had purchased the use of similar domain names in case Kerry picked at least three other possible running mates.
Republican officials had suggested during the primary campaign that Edwards was potentially the most formidable opponent to Bush. Yesterday, officials said their initial line of attack would focus on the many times Kerry had said during the primaries that Edwards was not ready for the job.
As Republicans prepared for an Edwards "bounce" for Kerry in the polls, conservative interest groups tried to portray Edwards as liberal, inexperienced and unprincipled. Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, said Edwards has shown "conspicuous hostility to manufacturing and business."
The socially conservative Concerned Women for America portrayed Edwards as trying to have it both ways on issues such as gay marriage. "He's a Kerry clone with charisma: He flip-flops on the issues, very hard to nail down," said Janice Crouse, an official with the group.
On Capitol Hill, Republican criticism was less sharp. House GOP leaders were quiet, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) praised Edwards as "a man of great character, great integrity" before saying the Democratic ticket had "no ideological balance" or geographic advantage.
Frist's remark about geography was one of several from southern Republicans seeking to blunt Edwards's potential appeal to the region, which has grown hostile to Democrats in presidential elections. "John Edwards has the right accent, but the wrong record to win in the South," Katon Dawson, chairman of the South Carolina GOP, said in a statement.
Cheney spokesman Kevin Kellems said the vice president told Edwards he "looked forward to their debate" this fall and said he hoped the campaign "will reflect credit on the process." Bush-Cheney campaign Chairman Marc Racicot echoed that tone in a statement welcoming Edwards, but Racicot offered him dubious praise as "a committed liberal and spirited messenger for his party."
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.