As the week wound down on the solo tour of the newly chosen Democratic vice presidential candidate, the old John Edwards was finally getting cranked up.
He brought a room of 700 Latino activists to their feet, whooping and clapping after a speech in which he asked them to envision a woman whose husband has been deployed to Iraq indefinitely and she is left to work two jobs to support her children.
"She thinks that she's alone. . . . Here's what we want to say to that woman and women like her all over this country. She is not alone. We see her, we feel her, we hear her voice, we will embrace her and we will lift her up," said Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina. And if Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is elected to the White House this fall, Edwards promised, that struggling woman "will have a president and a vice president who cares about her, who will fight for her. . . . Doesn't she deserve that?"
The room erupted.
Audiences found Edwards an able stand-in for Kerry during four days of stumping, beginning with a rally on the steps of the Capitol in Des Moines and ending at a Saturday afternoon fundraiser in Orange County, Calif., where he spoke to 400 supporters at a resort in Newport Beach. Although most of the events were held before partisan crowds, most voters said they never had the chance to see Edwards in person and came away from the encounter more excited about the ticket.
Rita Mercedez Davila, an executive assistant for a program called No Borders, said that after 31/2 years of the Bush administration, "I feel so drained of everything." But after hearing Edwards speak at the Southwest Voters Registration Education Project, a group that has vowed to register 10 million Latinos this year, Davila said she was "extremely motivated."
"His energy and the whole idea of knowing that it's possible to make a change, and each individual has something to contribute, is very amazing."
During the primaries, Edwards, a former trial lawyer, drew attention -- and more votes in some early primaries than political handicappers had predicted -- with his youthful appearance, cheerful demeanor and use of oratorical skills to relate his personal story of growing up in a working-class family and his vision for a country in which anyone, regardless of race or class, could succeed.
Now, the challenge for Edwards is to use his strong stage presence to convince voters that Kerry understands them and empathizes with their concerns. These days, Edwards talks less about his background and more about Kerry's credentials as a war hero, a local prosecutor and a senator. He emphasizes that Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam and take command of a Swift boat. "We need a president who will lead the world, not bully it," Edwards has been saying.
Edwards sometimes integrates Kerry's personal history with his own. For instance, one of his standard lines is: "I don't know about you, but where I come from, when a man volunteers to stand up and serve his country, when a man puts his life on the line to stand up for the men, who shows that he would never, ever, leave one of his men behind . . . that's a man who represents real American values."
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said Edwards is a good salesman for Kerry, particularly in touting the Massachusetts senator's military service.
"It is generally true that it's difficult to make the case for yourself because you appear self-aggrandizing . . . particularly when you're dealing with military heroism. The smartest strategy is to let someone else tell the audience about what you've done. Heroism undercuts itself when the hero tries to take credit."
Peter Scher, Edwards's campaign manager, said he was pleased with the vice presidential candidate's maiden voyage. "People are clearly enthusiastic -- they're responding to their shared message of optimism and hope," he said, adding that the candidates' agreement on most issues made it easy to integrate their messages.
Edwards launched his cross-country sweep on Wednesday in Des Moines, before a crowd of 1,000 under the gold-capped dome of the Capitol. His visit was well-received, but at least one person who had supported Edwards during the caucuses noted that the candidate seemed less exciting than he had been last winter.
But the next day, at a town hall meeting with about 200 people in New Orleans, Edwards frequently drew approving applause and nods when he criticized President Bush's policies and promised a different course. At one point, Edwards even drew praise for telling a woman that he would not be able to immediately address the problem of some Social Security recipients whose benefits are offset their by state government pensions.
"I just want to be straight with you," he told Laura Harper, 66, a union representative of school-support employees. Afterward, Harper said she appreciated Edwards's honesty.
He also tickled another audience with his frankness. At Saturday's fundraiser, held at a resort, Edwards referred to his "two Americas -- one for the privileged and one for everybody else." Smiling at the 400 people who had paid at least $1,000 each to attend the event, Edwards quipped: "This is the other America."
When the laughter subsided, he continued: "And I'm so proud of you because you believe in an America where everybody should have an opportunity to do well."