Kerry Camp Sees Edwards Helping With Rural Vote

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Published: July 9, 2004

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WASHINGTON, July 8 - Senator John Kerry's political advisers plan to dispatch his new running mate, Senator John Edwards, to rural areas in critical states across the Midwest and the West, in the belief that Mr. Edwards could be an unusually powerful advocate for the ticket in regions viewed as President Bush's stronghold.

For all the attention to Mr. Edwards's Southern roots, Mr. Kerry's aides said that his strongest appeal was likely to be among rural and independent voters, two of the most vital segments of the electorate this year, because of his upbringing in a small North Carolina town and his political identity as a Southern Democrat. Mr. Kerry's aides and some outside analysts said he could be a strong presence in a dozen battleground states outside the South, from Ohio to Oregon.

From looking at how he performed in the primaries, it is clear he did well with the rural vote," Steve Elmendorf, Mr. Kerry's deputy campaign manager, said. "We're going to send Edwards into rural states and Southern states because we think he can help us close the gap there."

The Democrats' emerging plan for Mr. Edwards comes at a time when Democratic and even some Republican officials suggest that Mr. Kerry's vice-presidential selection has the potential of being the most politically significant choice since another Massachusetts Democrat, John F. Kennedy, turned to another Southerner, Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1960. Many experts say the choice of Johnson pushed Texas into the Democrats' column and ensured Kennedy's victory.

Although Mr. Edwards is likely to sway a relatively small number of votes, Democrats and Republicans noted that the contest was likely to be determined by a sliver of voters in a handful of states, and said that Mr. Edwards appeared particularly strong among those voters the White House and Mr. Kerry's campaign had seen as pivotal to the outcome in November.

"I think it's going to help him," Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster, said of Mr. Kerry's choice of Mr. Edwards. "The picture of him and all the kids and the rest of it.

"He appeals to the Southern moderates, who in the past may have voted for the Republicans," Mr. Fabrizio added. "He's got a populist message, so it can go to union members; a sizable number of union members might have voted for George Bush. I think Edwards is appealing to female voters."

Mr. Bush's aides said they did not believe Mr. Edwards would make a significant difference, arguing that voters end up making their decisions in presidential elections based on the top of the ticket.

"People vote on the basis of the president, and they vote also, very importantly, on the basis of what a vice-presidential choice says about someone," Ken Mehlman, Mr. Bush's campaign manager, said.

But as Mr. Edwards and Mr. Kerry rode a wave of highly favorable publicity this week, there were signs of concern among Republicans. Led by Mr. Bush himself, the White House moved immediately to try to undercut Mr. Edwards by noting his lack of experience in government and challenging his ability to serve as president should something happen to Mr. Kerry. Even Mr. Kerry's advisers acknowledged the potential effectiveness of that line of attack.

National Review, one of the leading magazines of the conservative movement, posted an editorial on its Web site Thursday that served as something of a validation of Mr. Kerry's political judgment in picking Mr. Edwards.

"Edwards brings real strengths to the Democratic ticket," the editorial said. "He is an attractive figure. Voters seem to respond to youth, energy, and good looks. Edwards may also help Kerry appeal to centrist voters: Americans outside the South have a dated perception of how conservative Southern Democrats are. Edwards's campaign speech, though centered on the idea that Americans who are not rich have little hope of making it on their own, somehow comes across as optimistic."

Details of Mr. Edwards's schedule have not been worked out, campaign officials said. But Mr. Kerry's aides argued that Mr. Edwards - who at Mr. Kerry's side these past two days regularly introduced himself as someone who "grew up in a small town in North Carolina" - would be a compelling figure in rural areas of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, West Virginia, Iowa and New Mexico.

Mr. Kerry's advisers said his appeal to independent voters was displayed in another critical state when he was competing with Mr. Kerry in the Wisconsin primary. (At the time, the advisers had played down Mr. Edwards's showing among independent voters in Wisconsin.)

They also said Mr. Edwards would be a valuable asset in battleground states where he ran aggressively and built up name recognition in the primaries. Those include Iowa, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Ohio, Missouri and New Mexico.

This is not to say that Mr. Edwards, who was born in South Carolina and grew up in North Carolina, will ignore the South. In one early sign of how the selection of Edwards has affected the strategies of both sides, Mr. Kerry's campaign this week purchased its first television time in North Carolina to broadcast an advertisement featuring Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards together.

Tad Devine, one of Mr. Kerry's senior advisers, said the advertisements in North Carolina reflected the campaign's calculation that the presence of Mr. Edwards on the ticket would allow Mr. Kerry to compete in Southern states like North Carolina, Arkansas and Louisiana.

Republicans dismissed the Kerry advertising purchase as a political stunt, noting that Mr. Kerry was not currently running advertisements in Louisiana or Arkansas. At the same time, Mr. Bush's campaign announced on Thursday that it was also advertising on television in North Carolina, and was prepared to respond to moves by Mr. Kerry in the other states.

Mr. Edwards's position on the ticket was described by Republicans and Democrats as a clear boost for Mr. Kerry in one obviously critical Southern state: Florida. Mr. Edwards's wife, Elizabeth, made a point of noting where she was from as the Democrats campaigned in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Wednesday night

"I'm actually a native Floridian," Ms. Edwards said. "I was born in Jacksonville. My parents married in Pensacola - they now live in Sarasota." As the crowd erupted in cheers, she warned, "I'm not done yet," explaining that her sister lives in Bradenton and she has aunts and uncles "all over this state."

Beyond Florida, Democrats said that Mr. Kerry's hopes in the South were not particularly strong, even with Mr. Edwards on the ticket. Still, with Mr. Edwards at his side, his campaign appears to be at the very least attempting to force Mr. Bush to expend resources on a part of the country that his campaign had wanted to take for granted.

"We've got to make them defend territory on the electoral map," Mr. Devine said. "And there's a lot of red out there for us to do that."

Beyond the South, a poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's National Annenberg Election Survey conducted earlier this week underscored the potential value of Mr. Edwards's appeal among rural voters.

The poll found that just 19 percent of rural voters had an unfavorable view of Mr. Edwards, compared with 37 percent with a favorable view. By contrast, Mr. Kerry was viewed unfavorably by 43 percent of rural voters, compared with 36 percent who viewed him favorably.

"He was so effective in talking to and reaching the economically pressured voters; he seems like he could talk their language. And it resonated with them far better than they resonate with Kerry," said Peter F. Nardulli, a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Mr. Edwards's potential appeal to independent voters was displayed in the Wisconsin primary. Mr. Kerry defeated Mr. Edwards there on Feb. 17, but Mr. Edwards defeated him among independent voters by a margin of 40 percent to 28 percent, according to a survey of voters leaving the polls.

Mr. Bush's advisers said they were skeptical that Mr. Edwards's presence on the ticket would make a difference in the end.

Matthew Dowd, a senior Bush political strategist, disputed the idea that the electoral strength exhibited by Mr. Edwards during the Democratic primaries was a measure of how he might help Mr. Kerry.

"The only people he appealed to is a minority of Democratic voters," Mr. Dowd said. He said there was no evidence that Mr. Edwards could draw in any voters that Mr. Kerry did not already have, adding, "You're not going to have the answer to this question in a while, and in the end it's about the president, not the vice president."

Beyond that, Mr. Fabrizio, the Republican pollster, said, the image of a youthful Mr. Edwards frolicking with his wife and two young children could help him with young voters and among moderate women, who have proven to be of concern for Republicans. And the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson argued that Mr. Edwards, as a Southerner, could help drive up turnout among black voters, as well as blue-collar voters across the country.

"The fact is, if he excites labor and civil rights and working-class whites across the country, it changes the dynamics of the race," Mr. Jackson said. "Edwards will move comfortably in Appalachia. He'll move comfortably in the Carolinas and in Georgia."

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