The summer sport of politics: Veepstakes

National | Edwards, runner-up to Kerry in the primaries, emerges as the favorite for VP

Issue: "One nation under God," June 26, 2004

No sooner had Ronald Reagan's funeral ended than John Edwards was back on the campaign trail: At a South Florida fundraiser, the affable senator from North Carolina was doing his best to bury President Bush politically. Noting that John Kerry volunteered for military service, Sen. Edwards said he found it ironic that "now we have this president, who, best I can tell, disappeared during his National Guard service and a vice president who avoided military service, criticizing John Kerry for the medals he won in Vietnam." The crowd of Democratic activists ate it up-and gave it up, according to fundraising records. The anti-Bush message and the attractive young messenger brought in $150,000 for the Kerry campaign in a must-win state. It's a formula that has been repeated-with varying dollar amounts-over and over again in the past several weeks. Ohio. Minnesota. Texas. Louisiana. Alabama. Sen. Edwards has emerged as perhaps the most energetic campaigner on Sen. Kerry's behalf, fueling speculation that he'll soon be named to the No. 2 spot on the Democrats' national ticket. With Sen. Kerry scheduled to announce his pick before the start of the Democratic National Convention on July 26, his would-be running mates have only a few weeks left to impress him with their fundraising prowess and speechmaking abilities. On both counts, the North Carolina senator appears to be a natural fit. A wealthy trial lawyer himself, Sen. Edwards has leaned on his lawyer friends to donate millions to the Kerry campaign. But he's also proved popular with the grassroots, raising millions more with his energetic stump speeches across the country. Thanks to his tireless campaigning and his made-for-TV image, Sen. Edwards has emerged as a clear favorite with Democrats across the country. An AP-Ipsos poll released June 13 showed him well ahead of three likely rivals. According to the poll, 43 percent of Democrats would like to see Sen. Edwards in the No. 2 spot, compared to 19 percent for Rep. Dick Gephardt, 18 percent for Gen. Wesley Clark, and 4 percent for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Back in Washington, meanwhile, many leading Democrats appreciate Sen. Edwards for the political and geographical balance he could bring to the ticket. While Sen. Kerry is popular with his party's left wing, Sen. Edwards placed second throughout the primary season because of his more populist, centrist appeal. He's also a Southerner, and that could help the nominee in a region that might otherwise be written off entirely. Indeed, some of Sen. Edwards's strongest backers are Democratic senators who see in him their only chance for taking control of the upper chamber. Five Southern Democrats are retiring this year, and the party desperately needs to hold on to a few seats in a region that skews increasingly Republican. Strategists worry that conservative Democrats in the Southeast won't turn out for Sen. Kerry, whom many view as an aloof, elitist liberal. Without an appealing VP candidate to motivate the grassroots, Democrats could well lose every Senate race from North Carolina to Florida. Despite all the positives, Sen. Edwards is hardly a sure thing. Two of his greatest strengths-energy and personality-could also be seen as weaknesses by the sometimes-dour Sen. Kerry, who can't afford to be upstaged by his supporting cast. Furthermore, despite his popularity in the polls, Sen. Edwards doesn't appear to tilt even a single state to the Democratic column. In his home state of North Carolina, for instance, adding Sen. Edwards to the ticket merely brings the Democrats within striking distance in the polls rather than putting them in the lead. With no Southern states classified as "too close to call," some Kerry advisers want him to avoid the region altogether, instead picking a vice president with the ability to tip a battleground state to his advantage. That strategy would seem to favor Rep. Gephardt, a favorite son in vote-rich, hotly contested Missouri. But Rep. Gephardt was a flop during primary season, and some Democrats question his appeal outside the Show-Me State. Wesley Clark, the retired general, proved to be a more formidable campaigner, and his home state of Arkansas is considered a must-win for the Democrats. Furthermore, his military credentials could further erode the traditional Republican advantage in foreign affairs at a time when Iraq is likely to dominate the minds of voters. Despite his rumored spot on the short list, Gov. Vilsack appears to be a long shot. He's almost a complete unknown outside his home state, which-of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency-has a mere seven electoral votes to contribute. He's a foreign-affairs novice, but he does have the advantage of coming from outside the Beltway, which may help to balance another of Sen. Kerry's potential weaknesses. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is touted for bringing another sort of balance to the ticket. As one of the nation's highest-ranking Hispanic politicians, he could help deliver crucial minority votes all across the southern tier of the country. Texas is unlikely to budge from the Republican column, but Hispanic voters could make the difference in hotly contested states like New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, and electoral-vote-rich Florida. As the 2000 election illustrated, presidential politics-and the choice of a vice presidential running mate-is all about the electoral college map.

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