Message war over economy

Kerry-Edwards stress middle-class anxiety, while Bush touts recovery.

Much has been made of John Edwards's style - the optimism, the charm, the listening skills - but the North Carolina senator's addition to the Democratic presidential ticket also adds new force to the party's message: that the economic recovery leaves much to be desired for many Americans.

The message war of the campaign is now firmly launched on two tracks, security issues - including the war on terrorism and Iraq - and the economy. Iraq and the 9/11 investigation dominated headlines this spring, and are both issues that play into presumed Democratic nominee John Kerry's Senate and Vietnam War experience.

For Senator Edwards, Iraq was never a big part of his stump speech when he ran for the nomination; he was the man of "two Americas," the wealthy former trial lawyer who still managed to project affinity for the little guy rather than the affluent elite that he had long ago joined. Republicans call his message class warfare (and zing him personally as "a disingenuous liberal"). But the Democrats are banking on a message that the economic recovery is flawed - that job creation still hasn't made up for the jobs lost since George Bush became president and that the middle class is feeling squeezed and anxious.

Just look at these numbers

Right out of the block Wednesday morning, the Bush-Cheney campaign came back with a series of headlines touting economic good news, including analysts predicting that the economy is on track for its fastest growth in 20 years. The campaign also cited a five-month high in consumer confidence and expectations for increasing hiring by business executives.

The Kerry-Edwards campaign is blanketing the airwaves in key states - now including North Carolina - with ads that tout the theme of strength, both in the economy and in national security. On the economy, the Democrats promise good-paying jobs, affordable health care, and energy independence. To some Republicans, the first-term senator from North Carolina was a logical choice to bolster this pitch. "Edwards is the only candidate who truly has a message: 'The government is not on your side,' " says a senior Republican Senate aide. "It is a populist message with a dash of New Democrat."

The trick for the Kerry-Edwards team will be to sell an essentially negative theme - that the working person is getting a bad shake - with an upbeat tone. That's where Edwards's skill as a persuader comes in. With a high-watt smile and a youthful demeanor that belies his 51 years, Edwards is being counted on to convince voters that he and Kerry represent a positive vision for the nation.

Edwards "helps to make this race about the future," said Kerry senior adviser Tad Devine at a Monitor breakfast Wednesday.

The challenge for Republicans, in addition to reassuring the less-than-affluent that the party's economic policies will benefit everyone, is to sow as much doubt about Edwards as possible. Kerry's veep announcement represents one of the few moments of maximum public attention to his campaign between now and election day, and in an exceptionally tight race, he needs as much bounce in the polls as he can get.

The Bush campaign is belittling Edwards for his short political career - less than six years - and highlighting his previous career as a personal injury lawyer, a particular breed of lawyer that Republicans and the business lobby target for bringing frivolous lawsuits and driving up insurance rates.

"In the next two or three weeks, it's very critical that the Democrats focus on their key message, because the Republicans are going to try to identify Edwards as unqualified," says Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster based in Michigan.

That's the goal of the new Bush TV ad featuring Sen. John McCain endorsing the president, a poke at Kerry, who had courted the Arizona Republican to be his running mate and thus form a potentially blockbuster "unity ticket." Mr. Sarpolus doesn't see that spot doing much damage to Kerry-Edwards, and adds that overnight polling shows strong approval for Edwards.

The strongest critique against Edwards, analysts say, is his short experience in government, which the Bush team is already emphasizing, given the dangerous times and need for a firm hand at the helm. Kerry himself had stressed, before naming Edwards, that a top qualification for running mate is the ability to assume the presidency at a moment's notice. No one is arguing that Edwards was the most experienced candidate out there to stand at Kerry's side. But ultimately, Kerry opted for Edwards's sparkle and compelling rags-to-riches biography.

"If the Republicans can get Edwards off his game, then that's not good for Kerry," says Maryland-based pollster Del Ali. "But if he stays as positive and optimistic as he's been the last year, he's a tremendous asset. He's going to focus on the two Americas. He's going to say there's Dick Cheney's America and there's the America ... in my state."

Their moment on stage

The next big moment in the spotlight will the Democratic National Convention in Boston, which begins July 26. Kerry remains ill-defined to many voters, not just his positions on the issues but also his life story.

"What we have to do is remember that a lot of people haven't heard the story yet," Mr. Devine said at the Monitor breakfast. "There has to be a lot of biography both for Senator Kerry and for Senator Edwards."

Gail Russell Chaddock and David T. Cook contributed to this report.

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