North Carolina Sen. John Edwards's presence on the Democratic ticket may put the Tarheel State in play, along with a handful of other Southern and border states. But even more important, it gives Sen. John Kerry a powerful new voice in a number of key Midwestern battleground states - and among the small-town, middle-class voters there who are likely to decide the election.
Senator Kerry's selection of his former rival, announced by the Massachusetts senator at a rally in Pittsburgh Tuesday, stands as one of the least surprising vice presidential picks in recent campaign history. Although the process was a closely guarded secret, Mr. Edwards was seen by many as the leading candidate throughout: He campaigned hard for the No. 2 spot, making numerous appearances - and raising piles of cash - on Kerry's behalf.
Polls showed Edwards was the most popular choice among Democratic voters, and he was the only candidate who boosted Kerry's ratings when paired against President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Indeed, the only factors working against Edwards were rumors of lingering tensions with Kerry in the wake of their primary battle - and the one-term senator's relative lack of experience in foreign affairs, a particular concern in an election cycle dominated by war and terrorism.
Edwards's selection indicates Kerry believes not only that his own military and foreign-policy experience will be enough to cover the ticket as a whole, but also that domestic issues such as the economy and healthcare could prove equally, if not more, important to voters.
At a time when the economy is recovering but many Americans feel less economically secure, the Kerry campaign believes Edwards's populist appeal - as the self-made son of a textile worker - could give the Democratic ticket a boost, particularly in states with struggling manufacturing bases such as Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia. "There's no question John Edwards's personal story has particular appeal to the struggling middle class," says a senior Kerry adviser. "I think he will play well with those kinds of voters."
Rather than reinforcing Kerry's strongest traits, Edwards is likely to fill in certain perceived weaknesses, balancing out the ticket in a number of ways. Indeed, in some respects, the two men come across almost as opposites. Edwards's effortless style on the stump, which drew strong reviews during the primary campaign, stands in contrast to Kerry's stiffer delivery - and had Republicans Tuesday labeling the pick as Kerry's effort to fill in the "charm gap."
And while Edwards, like Kerry, is one of the richest men in the Senate, he comes from a far less elite background. Aides note that while the two men share many of the same values, they arrived at their beliefs through strikingly different circumstances.
"They both have a strong and deep understanding of the value of public service, but they come at it from very different backgrounds," says Steve Jarding, a former Edwards adviser. "Kerry learned it from his parents, traveling the world. Edwards [learned it] from a very different perspective. With far fewer means, he learned how to deal with the struggle of everyday life."
Edwards also injects a youthful flair - he is a decade younger than Kerry - and, as a senator still in his first term, more of an outside-the-Beltway perspective.
The biggest contrast of all, however, may be the fact that Edwards is a Southerner - something that will help give the ticket needed geographic balance.
Analysts say Edwards may not ultimately be able to deliver his home state, although it will certainly become more competitive now. But he could give Kerry a boost in more competitive Southern states such as Louisiana and Arkansas. And as a Southerner, he is likely to give the ticket a more moderate sheen, which could play well in Midwestern swing states.
"Just having a Southern accent is a good thing in the 'purple' states," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "People assume that a Southerner with an accent is more moderate than a liberal from Massachusetts."
Edwards does bring certain vulnerabilities to the ticket - foremost among them being his lack of foreign-policy experience. In the vice presidential debate this fall, analysts say, Mr. Cheney is likely to focus on this issue. "Whether people can imagine [Edwards] as commander in chief will be one of the issues of the campaign," says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. "It is one of the risks Kerry took" in picking Edwards.
In addition, Edwards's former career as a trial lawyer, along with the more protectionist stance on trade he took during the primary campaign, could stir up business interests to offer more support for Bush. Tuesday, in the wake of Kerry's announcement, the US Chamber of Commerce was threatening to revoke its neutrality in the race.
But despite opposition from the business community, many Democrats see Edwards's populist appeal as a plus. Although the economy may be growing, they note that other factors are leaving many voters feeling squeezed - from stagnant wages, to rising healthcare costs, to the high price of gasoline. "Edwards can articulate the anxiety around that squeeze better than anyone else," says Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.
Edwards can also tap into rural voters' growing distrust of corporations, she adds. In the wake of recent corporate scandals, Ms. Greenberg says many rural voters have become "deeply anticorporate," and harbor a vision of "CEOs running amok" - a factor that could give Edwards an edge over Mr. Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton.