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Choice Is Pragmatic, Undramatic

Times Staff Writer

With the selection of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, Sen. John F. Kerry tapped a running mate who combines obvious strengths with subtle risks.

In many key respects, Kerry’s choice of Edwards -- his most effective rival for the Democratic presidential nomination last winter -- was the safe pick. It drew broad support among Democrats and was unlikely to expose Kerry to any significant second-guessing within the party.

It also minimizes the risk that the presumed vice presidential nominee will make mistakes that hurt the ticket: During his presidential run, Edwards proved himself to be a skilled and at times charismatic performer capable of handling the pressures of the national stage.

“We had a test of campaign skills during the primaries ... and they put the best possible candidate on the ticket,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff said.

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But in other ways, the choice represents a gamble. Kerry has selected a running mate who has made his mark mostly on domestic issues in a year when voters appear to be weighing national security and foreign policy more heavily than in any election since 1980. Edwards is also a fresh face at a turbulent time when experience looms large for many Americans.

His selection may signal that the Kerry campaign is serious about contesting President Bush in several Southern states. But that could prove a poor use of Kerry’s resources if Bush still dominates in the region.

Ultimately, the greatest peril surrounding Kerry’s decision may be that he chose the man many considered the front-runner for the job all along.

Although generating an enthusiastic response from Democrats, its also means the pick may not be dramatic or surprising enough to help win Kerry a new look from undecided voters.

Many Democratic strategists believe that Edwards’ real value won’t come in sending an immediate symbolic message to voters -- the way Al Gore’s selection of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, then-President Clinton’s sharpest Democratic critic in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, helped Gore declare his independence from the president in 2000.

Instead, Edwards could help Kerry most at the practical level -- in delivering the party’s message day after day, particularly on domestic issues. In almost every possible way -- age, physical appearance, demeanor, experience and ideology -- Edwards will present a stark contrast with Vice President Dick Cheney.

“I’m not sure there is a macro-message to the choice,” said Joel Goldstein, a law professor at St. Louis University and author of “The Modern American Vice Presidency.” “It may be Kerry looking at the situation and saying, ‘Here is a guy who can help deliver the Democratic message in a way that will resonate with swing voters.’ ”

Although polls consistently showed that he was the favorite vice presidential choice of core Democrats, Edwards is still largely a blank slate to most Americans. A survey completed Monday by the University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey found that just more than half the public did not know him well enough to express an opinion about him.

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Republicans immediately moved to define Edwards, a former trial lawyer, in terms they thought would limit his appeal to swing voters. Within minutes of the announcement, the Republican National Committee released a 23-page document that portrayed Edwards as an inexperienced liberal beholden to the trial lawyers lobby.

Yet many Democrats find the 51-year-old Edwards attractive precisely because he has mostly managed to avoid ideological labels during his brief political career. During the primaries, he took on Kerry and the race’s earlier presumed front-runner, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, from both the left and the right. In many states, he polled better among independent voters than among partisan Democrats.

Democrats on Tuesday were quick to defend Edwards against GOP charges that he lacked sufficient foreign policy and national security expertise, pointing to his service on the Senate Intelligence Committee and his contribution to several bills relating to homeland security.

“John Edwards has far more experience on national security today than Gov. George W. Bush had at this time four years ago,” said Richard C. Holbrooke, United Nations ambassador under Clinton and a Kerry advisor.

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But almost all Democrats agree that Edwards is more comfortable delivering a message on domestic rather than foreign policy issues. That suggests that even with the campaign focusing so heavily on Iraq and national security, many in the Kerry camp still think domestic issues represent their best chance of beating Bush.

“In terms of message, [Edwards’ selection] is a strong reinforcement of what John Kerry has been talking about, which is that a strong America begins at home,” said Tad Devine, a senior Kerry advisor. “It really helps to reinforce the idea that a Kerry presidency will be focused on good-paying jobs, education, healthcare -- things that John Edwards is committed to.”

Edwards’ selection may also send clues about Kerry’s strategy for amassing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. The campaign hopes Edwards will help in two regions: the South and the Midwest.

Several Democrats familiar with campaign planning said the decision ensured that Kerry would compete for North Carolina. The state hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since 1976, but one public poll in May showed a Kerry-Edwards ticket running even with Bush there.

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Devine said Edwards would also help Kerry compete in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as in Virginia and Florida.

Both sides view Florida as up for grabs. But Democrats might consider it a victory if they could compel Bush to spend time and money defending North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana, even if he won them.

“The South is the strategic key to the election,” Devine said. “The president will be forced to compete throughout the South and defend ... states he won last time.”

Yet many Republican strategists welcome Kerry’s tough talk about fighting in the South. Even with Edwards on the ticket, they think Bush remains strong in a region where he won all 13 states in 2000.

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They also think Democrats would be making a serious miscalculation by shifting time and resources to the South from battlegrounds such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The Republicans are confident that they can use Edwards’ liberal views on abortion and gay rights to paint him as culturally out of touch with his home region.

Edwards’ effect may pivot more on his appeal to voters in small communities in the Midwest.

Many Democrats are hoping that Edwards, who grew up in modest circumstances in a North Carolina mill town before earning millions as a trial lawyer, will help the ticket win back these culturally conservative voters, who defected en masse from Gore in 2000.

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Their votes could determine who wins such states as Ohio, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota this year.

As a primary candidate, Edwards highlighted his roots, even campaigning to the tune of the John Mellencamp song “Small Town.” But his appeal to rural voters in the Midwest remains unproven.

During the primaries, Edwards ran no better in the 15 most rural counties in Ohio and Wisconsin than he did in the states overall, according to a Times analysis of voting results. Only in Missouri did he show more strength in rural communities than the rest of the state.

Likewise, despite the populist and tough-on-trade campaign message Edwards delivered with such gusto, in almost all states he ran no better with blue-collar, high-school-educated voters than those with college degrees, exit polls found.

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Numbers like those counsel caution in predicting Edwards’ effect on this year’s race. Only one thing might be certain: By choosing such a relatively young running mate, Kerry will affect the dynamics not only of this presidential race, but the ones that follow.

Whether or not the ticket wins this fall, Edwards’ selection is likely to reinforce his position as a front-runner for the next open Democratic presidential nomination -- and the principal future obstacle for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) if she someday seeks to become the first female nominee.

Times staff writer Kathleen Hennessey contributed to this report.


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