The Edwards Balancing Act

In choosing North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as his running mate, John Kerry expands the appeal of the Democratic ticket in the November presidential election. But for the first-term senator, this rapid rise to a possible vice-presidential slot means he needs to prove himself to more voters in a very short period of time.

Strategically, though, the pick is smart. While Mr. Kerry easily attracts Northern Democrats, he widens his appeal to other regions by putting a Southerner on the ticket.

In many ways, Kerry's choice is one of opposites. Kerry, for instance, voted for NAFTA, Edwards against it, a sign that the two senators still have a lot of "getting to know you" to do. Edwards also is far less experienced in politics and foreign policy than Kerry. On the primary campaign trail, Kerry once remarked, "When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers then."

The son of a textile millworker, Edwards was the first in his family to get a college degree. Unlike Yale- educated Boston brahmin Kerry, Edwards is a populist and a trial lawyer, and at times a passionate Southern-style orator. His folksy appeal helps offset Kerry's elitist reserve.

Still, on one crucial issue, Edwards and Kerry are alike: They both voted for the war in Iraq and against the subsequent $87 billion in funding.

But John Kerry, take note: John Edwards was able to run a mostly positive campaign that resonated with voters. Yet so far, the Bush/Kerry face-off has been one of the most negative presidential races on record. Already, the Bush/Cheney camp plans an ad to show John McCain as Kerry's real first choice for VP. (One of the key tests for Edwards will surely be his solo debate with Vice President Dick Cheney.)

Although Kerry bridges a divide with Edwards, note that in spite of the positive nature of his primary campaign, Edwards also consistently made a point of underscoring the "divided America" theme - a form of class warfare that takes populism too far, and that no one needs. And it's worth noting that Edwards won only two primary states - North and South Carolina.

Kerry's calculated choice also is significant in light of those he did not choose. He didn't pick a woman, a sad reflection on the lack of progress there. He didn't choose US Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, or Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. Perhaps that's because Edwards showed strength in the Midwest, such as in the Iowa caucuses.

But was it all a matter of geography? Or does it suggest that Kerry is a politician who plays it safe, reflecting his record of dancing conservatively between political tensions?

At the least, Edwards helps enliven an election season that's so far been fairly dull. He can also help generate interest in the ideas, not just the horse race, of this campaign.

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