Edwards faces his biggest test yet

Speaking Wednesday night, the vice presidential nominee seeks to crack race's dead heat.

Who is John Edwards? Since his selection as John Kerry's running mate, the photogenic North Carolina senator has graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. His smart, down-to-earth wife and towheaded children round out a picture of the all-American family, albeit with a multimillion-dollar bank account.

It is a tableau meant to complement the more staid Senator Kerry and his quirky billionaire wife, Teresa. But after three weeks on the Democratic presidential ticket, capped by a prime-time acceptance speech Wednesday night, Senator Edwards will find that the biggest test of his short political life lies before him: Can he do anything to nudge his ticket beyond its dead-heat place in the polls versus the Bush-Cheney team? And assuming the Kerry-Edwards team comes out of its convention with at least a small bounce, can he help keep the momentum going to Nov. 2?

"By running a sunny but losing campaign [during the primaries], where he didn't do what it took to win - go negative on Kerry - he was the sunshine boy and the press treated him accordingly," says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina. "He didn't get the scrutiny [Howard] Dean got and Kerry got; even Wesley Clark got a little roughed up. But Edwards is still untested."

The big speech

Wednesday night's speech may not be his biggest moment in the national spotlight during the campaign. That will come in the fall when he debates Vice President Cheney, a matchup Edwards will enter as the underdog.

But, as with all political debates, what counts is expectations, not the raw score. Cheney's record of public service is as thick as a phone book, while Edwards has just one nearly completed term as a US senator.

What Edwards needs to do, both Wednesday night and in the debate, is convince the public that he would lend sound judgment to a Kerry White House and have the leadership skills to take over as president if need be. In recent White Houses, the No. 2 job has grown beyond its ceremonial role; in the midst of continuing terror threats, the vice president can be called upon to make unilateral decisions, as Cheney did during the 9/11 attacks.

Still, it's possible that for voters, the best a veep pick can accomplish is to do no harm. Even if the Edwards selection didn't give the Democratic ticket a boost in the polls, at least it didn't produce a chorus of negativity or laughter, which George H.W. Bush encountered when he put another young senator with good hair on his ticket, Dan Quayle. No one questions Edwards's intelligence, charisma, or humble beginnings.

Kerry himself raised the stakes for his vice presidential pick when he stated repeatedly, before selecting Edwards, that he was looking for someone who could become president on a moment's notice. So in the weeks ahead, Edwards is likely to face questions about his leadership and judgment. He has no executive experience, having worked as a highly successful trial lawyer for 20 years before running for the Senate. As a first-term senator, he had yet to establish a reputation for leadership, and was in fact in danger of losing reelection had he chosen to run again.

Edwards supporters argue that his record as a trial lawyer, then as a politician, does point to his leadership.

"John is a very focused leader," says Ed Turlington, a former law partner and chairman of Edwards's presidential campaign. Mr. Turlington cites Edwards's performance in the primaries - 2.1 million votes and $21 million in fundraising - as evidence.

"He's also led on policy discussion, crafting well-thought-out and specific ideas early on in the campaign," he continues. "He's intellectually curious, he listens to counsel, measures it against his own personal life experience and then against his core values. The idea of having a VP who is comfortable seeking out new ideas but also confident making his own decisions is very encouraging."

Experience doesn't seem to matter

History has shown that Americans don't necessarily vote based on experience or even perceived intelligence. Since the 1970s, two Southern governors have ousted experienced Washington hands from the White House, Gerald Ford and the first President Bush. Some analysts have wondered aloud if reversing the order of the current Democratic ticket - the fresh face on top, the Washington veteran as veep - might have been a stronger outcome, one similar to the team that was elected four years ago.

"If [the ticket] were reversed, the campaign would be much more exciting, but Republicans would really hit that experience issue," says Ted Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. "And we have to believe the voters care more about that after 9/11 than before, but not much more."

In particular, Edwards lacks personal experience in the military, a central feature on Kerry's résumé and in his campaign. During the primaries, Edwards preferred to discuss domestic issues rather than foreign policy and defense.

Another question surrounding Edwards's role as top cheerleader for Kerry is whether he will adopt the attack-dog pose a la Cheney. No one expects Edwards to drop the smile or optimistic tone, but voters should listen carefully to his words and not just the delivery, analysts say.

"He gives it [the ticket] a positive face," says Professor Arrington. "I'm not sure we really know yet what he'll do with it. What happened in the primaries is not necessarily a good indicator of what will happen in the general."

Patrik Jonsson contributed to this report.

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