PITTSBURGH — Declaring himself “humbled” and “thrilled,” Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina jumped on a plane and met up in Pittsburgh with fellow Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, who named Edwards as his running mate Tuesday.
The newly minted Democratic ticket scheduled no public events for Tuesday night. They and their families met for dinner at the estate of Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, before hitting the road Wednesday morning for a rapid-fire series of campaign rallies in states that are expected to be crucial in the fall election: Ohio, Florida, New York, West Virginia, New Mexico and North Carolina.
Edwards will have a Secret Service escort now that he is the Democratic vice presidential candidate.
Kerry kept his selection a secret right up until the moment he announced it Tuesday morning in an e-mail message to his supporters, in which he said Edwards “has shown courage and conviction as a champion for middle-class Americans and those struggling to reach the middle class.”
Moments later, he told the crowd at a rally in Pittsburgh of his selection, calling Edwards a man “who has shown guts and determination and political skills in his own race for the presidency of the United States.”
The huge crowd of supporters burst into applause, waving handmade signs interspersed with professionally printed “Kerry-Edwards” signs that had been kept under wraps until the last minute.
“I trust that met with your approval,” Kerry said with a smile as a banner unfurled behind him that read: “Kerry-Edwards. A stronger America.”
Kerry’s decision had been kept so closely held that Edwards did not have time to reach Pittsburgh for the announcement. He was at his home in Washington, readying his children for summer camp, when he got word. As he left for the airport Tuesday afternoon, he smiled broadly and gave a thumbs-up.
In a statement, Edwards, 51, who is finishing his first term in the Senate, said he was “humbled by the offer and thrilled to accept it.”
Edwards, who made millions of dollars as a trial lawyer before becoming a senator, met secretly with Kerry late last week. Aides said Kerry had reviewed two dozen possibilities, among them Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and two other former rivals for the presidential nomination, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.
Edwards won only one primary during his run for the nomination, but he appealed to thousands of Democratic voters with the positive tone of his campaign. Kerry said in his e-mail message that he could not wait to see Edwards going “toe-to-toe with Dick Cheney.”
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“In the next 120 days and in the administration that follows, John Edwards and I will be fighting for the America we love,” Kerry said in the message.
“We’ll be fighting to give the middle class a voice by providing good paying jobs and affordable health care. We’ll be fighting to make America energy independent. We’ll be fighting to build a strong military and lead strong alliances, so young Americans are never put in harm’s way because we insisted on going it alone.”
Bush team launches counter-ad
Republicans wasted no time criticizing the choice.
The Bush campaign issued a “talking points” memo to supporters accusing Edwards of delivering “pessimism with a Southern drawl and a smile, but his message of a divided America rings hollow in the ears of an optimistic America that is united in meeting the tests of our times with strength and hope.”
The Republican National Committee called Edwards a “disingenuous unaccomplished liberal” and “friend to personal injury trial lawyers,” even as Cheney called to congratulate him. A spokeswoman, Nicolle Devenish, said Cheney told his rival that he looked forward to the vice presidential debate and “a spirited campaign.”
President Bush also welcomed Edwards to the race, telling reporters, “I look forward to a good, spirited contest.” He declined to say whether he agreed with the attacks and the early “tone” of the campaign.
Bush’s political team planned to air a television ad titled “First Choice” featuring Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an effort to paint Kerry’s running mate as his second choice. McCain had reportedly rejected Kerry’s overtures to be No. 2 on the Democratic ticket. Kerry, for his part, never said he had offered the position to McCain.
“He has not wavered, he has not flinched from the hard choices, he was determined and remains determined to make this world a better, safer, freer place,” McCain says in the ad, referring to Bush.
Republican sources told NBC News that it would begin airing Wednesday, but the Democrats beat them to the punch, immediately airing an ad on cable news channels introducing voters to the Kerry-Edwards ticket.
Edwards makes his case
Aides to Kerry told NBC News that the candidate had been leaning toward Graham, a good friend who was considered more experienced and likely to bring with him Florida’s 27 electoral votes. Other aides were promoting Gephardt as the safest choice.
But Edwards, who had already passed background checks when he was considered for the No. 2 slot on the ticket with Al Gore, was the first choice of influential party members like Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and most House Democrats, including some of Gephardt’s closest friends.
The Kerry aides said the argument was that Edwards was a strong campaigner who could give the ticket a Southern strategy of challenging President Bush in large parts of the South.
Edwards himself apparently swayed Kerry in a series of recent meetings, some of them secret. The most recent was Thursday night, aides said, when Kerry waited for reporters outside his home in Washington to leave before slipping out a back door with one Secret Service agent. He met Edwards two blocks away, at the home of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Kerry had started his search by telling Jim Johnson, the head of his vice presidential team, and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill that his running mate needed to fit five criteria:
- A proven leader with sound judgment on national security, economic prosperity and social justice.
- Committed to Kerry’s issues and vision for the country.
- Capable of inspiring confidence in voters from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
- Compatible with Kerry “on every level.”
- “Ready at any moment to assume the awesome responsibility of president.”
The list of criteria, which the campaign referred to as a “mission statement,” was obtained by The Associated Press.
Aides said Johnson consulted with more than 300 people, not all of them Democrats.
Kerry himself actively considered about 25 candidates, aides said without releasing their names.
NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and Norah O’Donnell in Washington and Carl Quintanilla and Roxanne Garcia in Pittsburgh, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.