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The Race to the White House

Edwards Isn't a Cinch for the No. 2 Slot

Kerry's Senate colleague would offer youth and charisma, but the former rivals might not have the chemistry to win in November.

March 03, 2004|Mark Z. Barabak | Times Staff Writer

His presidential hopes having ended Tuesday, John Edwards is seen by many Democrats as an ideal running mate for John F. Kerry, complementing the Massachusetts senator with his comparative youth and charisma.

"He has a message ... with appeal to lots of voters, from independents to working-class Democrats," said Garry South, a party strategist based in California. "And he has always had one of the best raps down on [President] Bush of all the candidates in the field, even when we had 10 of them."

Although not exactly a draft-Edwards movement, the push to place him on the ticket shows how the 50-year-old North Carolina senator has captured the fancy of many party faithful, who tout his selection as a way to instantly unify Democrats.

Still, the only person whose opinion matters -- Kerry -- refuses to say whom he might consider for a running mate, insisting he is focused solely on clinching the nomination. Edwards also shuns talk of the vice presidential slot, maintaining he is not remotely interested.

Neither statement is unusual, nor does it necessarily reflect where the candidates will stand even a short time from now.

Opinions differ among analysts on what, if any, advantages Edwards would bring to the Democratic ticket.

He has proved to be one of the party's most talented speakers and has shown a particular fluency addressing the anxieties of blue-collar Democrats. But a Kerry-Edwards ticket seems unlikely to succeed even in North Carolina, let alone other Southern states that have been less hospitable to Democrats.

"While I think John Edwards has more political talent in his little finger than John Kerry has in his whole body, I don't know that as a running mate that makes much difference," said Charles Cook, an independent campaign analyst in Washington. "It's not obvious to me that he fixes any problem."

If history offers any guide, it would be unusual for Kerry to turn to a vanquished rival to fill out the ticket.

It has happened only twice in modern times: in 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy picked Lyndon B. Johnson to help carry Texas (which he did), and in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan picked George H.W. Bush to help unify the GOP. In doing so, Reagan overlooked Bush's famous denunciation of his fiscal proposals as "voodoo economics."

Typically, by the end of a nominating fight relations have so soured between contestants -- particularly the final two -- that pairing off as running mates is about the last thing they want to consider.

"If you decide you don't like someone, you'll probably decide other people wouldn't like them very much, either," said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and author of a book on the vice presidency.

Still, some Democrats believe this year could be different. They point to the swift and relatively bloodless nature of the primary campaign, which seems to have left few scars on either Kerry or Edwards despite some prickly exchanges, including several at a rowdy debate Sunday in New York.

Edwards' boosters say that even if he couldn't help Kerry win in the South, at least he could campaign there enough to force Republicans to respond with more time and effort than they would like.

They also suggest Edwards' relative youth and buoyant campaign style would offset the more staid -- some say aloof -- manner of the 60-year-old Kerry.

And Edwards' support among fellow trial lawyers, who donated millions to his campaign, could "move a whole lot of money into [Democratic] coffers fast," said Jenny Backus, a Democratic strategist. She called a Kerry-Edwards ticket "a match made in heaven."

Hopes of seeing the two run together may also reflect the fierce partisan desire to beat Bush.

"It comes from 'Wouldn't it be nice if we were united and putting all this primary stuff behind us?' " said Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist whose candidate, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, faced a backlash for his rough tactics in Iowa's lead-off contest.

But when it comes to choosing a running mate, popular sentiments have a way of being trumped by political calculations and personal chemistry. It is not at all clear how Edwards measures up in the latter category.

"Respectful and cordial" was how an Edwards campaign strategist described the relationship between the two men. "Mutually respectful," was how a Kerry aide put it.

The two had a friendly reunion on the Senate floor Tuesday when they returned to vote on a key gun control measure. But, privately, a Democratic strategist with extensive experience on Capitol Hill said Kerry shared the view of many fellow senators that it was "stunningly presumptuous of John Edwards to seek the presidency" after serving less than a single term in the Senate.

"Like many members of the Senate club, he felt Edwards was way green and way ambitious to even think of it," said the strategist, who did not want to be quoted by name to preserve his relationships with both lawmakers.

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