Cover Story

JOHNNY-COME-LATELY

John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as his running mate puts a first-term senator on the Democrats' national ticket -- but it could also force the GOP to spend precious resources in the South

Issue: "Kerry picks Edwards as VP," July 17, 2004

For political reporters, John Kerry's selection of John Edwards as his running mate was nothing short of a bonanza. The contrasts between Dick Cheney and his youthful challenger seemed almost too good to be true, promising four months of creative writing: Bald versus Breck. Grimace versus grin. Experience versus enthusiasm. Gravitas versus the gravy train.

If the wordplay seemed obvious, however, the impact of the choice was less so. Even as Republicans acknowledged that the Democrats would likely enjoy an immediate bounce in the polls, some strategists wondered how Mr. Kerry would benefit in the long term from a running mate who couldn't guarantee the electoral votes of even his home state.

Still, it was all smiles and anticipation at the July 6 announcement in Pittsburgh. Although Mr. Edwards was long the rumored frontrunner, thanks to his strong showing in the Democratic primaries, the Kerry team had conducted its vice-presidential search in the utmost secrecy. Definitive word of the selection leaked out just hours ahead of the official announcement-not soon enough to prevent the New York Post from printing an embarrassing page-one story naming Dick Gephardt as Mr. Kerry's choice.

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As the almost-VP pick four years ago, Mr. Kerry knows the disappointment of being passed over. Before naming his running mate, he thanked the "talented and decent Americans" who had submitted to the "intrusive and frustrating process" of being vetted for vice president.

"Each of those individuals would make a great vice president and indeed, in their own right, could lead our country," Mr. Kerry declared. "But I can choose only one running mate, and this morning I have done so. I have chosen a man who understands and defends the values of America. . . . A man whose life has prepared him for leadership and whose character brings him to exercise it. . . . With your help the next vice president of the United States will be Sen. John Edwards from North Carolina."

On cue, the crowd went wild. Hot-off-the-press Kerry-Edwards signs sprouted, as if from nowhere, as the candidate continued to extol his onetime rival. "I've worked with John Edwards side-by-side, and sometimes head-to-head," Mr. Kerry said, obliquely acknowledging political differences on issues such as free trade. Then, as if to fend off criticism that the one-term senator lacked necessary experience, Mr. Kerry declared: "John Edwards is ready for this job."

Republicans were quick to point out that Mr. Kerry himself didn't believe that just a few months ago. Moments before the official announcement, the Bush-Cheney rapid-response team had already posted a web page quoting Mr. Kerry's past criticisms of his rival. "In the Senate four years-and that is the full extent of [his] public life-no international experience, no military experience, you can imagine what the advertising is going to be next year," Mr. Kerry told The New York Times back in January, arguing that Mr. Edwards was not yet ready for prime time. "When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers then."

Despite the past differences between the two men, Republican leaders acknowledge that they'll likely enjoy at least a brief honeymoon with the voters. Matthew Dowd, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, predicted that between the hoopla of a vice-presidential selection and the Democratic convention later this month, Mr. Kerry's poll numbers could rise by 15 points. "Assuming that Kerry enjoys the average 'challenger's bounce' . . . we should expect the state of the race to swing wildly to his favor by early August," Mr. Dowd wrote in a July 5 memo to campaign leaders.

If GOP leaders were braced for a drop in the polls, however, they weren't going down without a fight. On the same day as Mr. Kerry's announcement, the Bush-Cheney campaign hit the airwaves with a new ad featuring Arizona Sen. John McCain embracing President Bush and extolling his leadership in the fight against terrorism. Coyly titled "Second Choice," the ad sought to remind voters that Mr. Edwards landed the No. 2 spot on the Democratic ticket only after Mr. McCain turned it down.

Still, as second choices go, many analysts acknowledge Mr. Edwards was a shrewd pick. "It's a smart, smart decision on Kerry's part," says Randy Page, a GOP political strategist in South Carolina. "Contrary to the Republican line, I think it's going to make a decent difference."

Although Mr. Page doesn't think his own state is in play-it went for Mr. Bush by 16 percentage points in 2000-he says the Democrats now have a shot in both North Carolina and Virginia, states that were safely Republican before the Edwards announcement. "The thing that concerns me is that Bush did not need to have any of these Southern states in play," Mr. Page says. "It will require them to spend money down here that they didn't want to. . . . You'll see Bush in Dixie more than he thought he would have to be."

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