An article July 8 incorrectly reported that the Bush-Cheney campaign had not appointed a state leadership or begun developing a grass-roots organization in North Carolina. Campaign officials say they have chairs for each county in the state, and chairs in key precincts. (Published 7/9/04)

President Bush on Wednesday questioned the fitness of Sen. John Edwards to assume the presidency, lashing out at the North Carolinian on his home turf just 25 hours after he joined Sen. John F. Kerry's ticket.

Bush had cordially welcomed the freshman senator to the race hours after Kerry announced his choice of running mate, but when asked here how Edwards would stack up against Vice President Cheney, he snapped: "Dick Cheney can be president. Next?" Then Bush pivoted away from his questioner and toward the next one.

Bush's criticism of Edwards reflected the determination of the White House to undermine him and prevent the Democrats from getting a significant boost from the choice, especially in the South.

Still, Bush's remarks surprised officials in both parties, especially as Bush had no national experience when he was elected to the top job in 2000. Edwards has served nearly six years in the Senate, including a seat on the intelligence committee. But Kerry himself had questioned Edwards's preparedness during the primaries, and the Bush-Cheney campaign is reprising those remarks as a marquee part of its case against Edwards.

A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll released Wednesday found that 57 percent of those surveyed believed Edwards is qualified to serve as president; that is the same rating Cheney received when Bush selected him.

During a brief question-and-answer session at Raleigh-Durham International Airport, Bush also criticized Kerry, saying twice that the people of the Tar Heel State know that "the senator from Massachusetts doesn't share their values."

At first, Bush did not take the bait about Edwards. The first time a reporter asked whether Edwards is ready to be a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, Bush replied: "That will be up to the voters to decide."

Bush deflected a question about whether Edwards's candidacy would force him to spend more time in the South. "Talk to the schedulers," he said. "I'm not the scheduler. I'm just a simple candidate."

Southern political scientists said North Carolina, which Bush easily carried in 2000, could be a swing state based on Edwards's favorite-son appeal and the loss of tobacco, textile and furniture-making jobs. The Bush-Cheney campaign had not appointed a state leadership or begun developing a grass-roots organization in North Carolina, but it now plans to do so.

"Edwards is a real problem for the Bush campaign," said Merle Black, an authority on southern politics at Emory University, in Atlanta. "They're going to have to work for states they carried rather easily four years ago, and they already had no margin for error."

Jesse L. Jackson said Edwards will be a formidable force in the region, in part because his primary campaign had "raised, as only a southerner could, the issue of the structural gap between black and white, sort of like LBJ or Jimmy Carter did."

The Bush campaign's strategy is to blanket local radio and television in southern political battlegrounds with interviews asserting that Edwards is Kerry's ideological soul mate. Republican officials plan to try to blunt the favorite-son effect by shifting the attention from Edwards back to Kerry.

"This is not about John Edwards -- this is a reflection of John Kerry," Bush-Cheney spokesman Reed Dickens said. "We're banking on the fact that people are going to put his southern accent on mute and look at the positions he's taken. All the charm in the world doesn't make up for the fact that he's as liberal as Kerry."

Republicans also note that North Carolina politicians had questioned whether Edwards would be popular enough to retain his Senate seat if he had run for reelection in November.

First lady Laura Bush, speaking to reporters in Council Bluffs, Iowa, said she was not going to criticize the opposing ticket, but then echoed Bush's phrase. "I really do believe that President Bush and Vice President Cheney share the values and the character that Americans have, that most Americans have, and certainly Americans in the heartland have," she said.

Bush's 11th visit to North Carolina as president had been scheduled weeks before the selection of Edwards. The main purpose of the trip was to appear at a pair of fundraising events that took in $2.35 million for the Republican National Committee.

Bush also appeared with three of his judicial nominees whose confirmations have been blocked by Democrats -- including Edwards, who sits on the Judiciary Committee. The issue is of huge importance to Bush's conservative base, and he was anxious to reassure supporters who were dismayed by a recent deal he made with Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) that ended the White House practice of seating judges during congressional recesses.

Asked about the difference a Kerry-Edwards administration might make on the federal bench, Bush shot back: "They're the ones blocking the nominees in the Senate." Bush attacked Kerry's running mate by name while describing his use of the power of a home-state senator to delay confirmation hearings: "Senator Edwards will not allow two of the nominees to whom I referred to even get to the committee."

From North Carolina, Bush flew to Michigan, where he also raised money and then met with six of his judicial nominees. He complained that they are "being blocked by a Senate minority."

Bush participated in five events in North Carolina and Michigan, all closed to most reporters. A small pool of reporters observed his remarks after the meetings with judges in both states; the second time, he took no questions. No reporters were permitted at the three fundraisers, and the texts of his remarks were not released.

President Bush's remarks on John Edwards surprised officials in both parties.