msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 7/6/2004 3:31:12 PM ET 2004-07-06T19:31:12

John Kerry’s decision to select John Edwards as his running mate Tuesday was so closely guarded that some of the front-runners for the second slot on the ticket didn’t get the news until moments before the announcement was made.

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Afterwards, they all pledged support for the team the Democrats hope will defeat President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in November.

As many as 25 people were considered for Democratic vice presidential candidate in process that included dozens of meetings since in March, according to campaign officials. After contacting Edwards at around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday, Kerry called several other frontrunners to deliver the news.

Kerry said he spoke to "a number of talented and decent Americans" who were considered. He said any of them would make a great vice president -- but that he can choose only one.

But Kerry advisers said their boss had recently narrowed down his choices to a short list that included Edwards, Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.

Pledging support
On Tuesday, Democrats who were passed over for the job quickly pledged support for the ticket.

"I think Sen. Edwards is an excellent selection,” Graham told reporters after the announcement that Edwards got the nod. “He's demonstrated as a candidate how intelligent and effective he can be. He has a strong message about bringing America together.  He will be an effective vice-presidential partner with President Kerry."

Graham dismissed concerns that Edwards was chosen because he is from the South. He said that, while he fears this year’s election is shaping up to be highly partisan, he’s confident that Kerry and Edwards will take the high road and lead a positive campaign.

Graham, who got the call from Kerry at around 8 a.m. and talked for about ten minutes, was apparently under consideration until the last minute. Freshly-printed campaign signs touting the new Kerry-Edwards ticket showcased a Kerry-Graham ticket on the reverse. 

The Kerry campaign told NBC News that the process of gathering information and meeting with potential candidates ended Thursday night. A senior campaign official said Kerry did not ask for any polling in making his decision.

Gephardt, one of Kerry’s main rivals in the Democratic primaries, was also considered a front runner. Speculation about Gephardt’s chances were strong enough to prompt the the New York Post to roll out an “exclusive” report Tuesday before the announcement that the Missouri Senator would be named as Kerry vice presidential contender.

"I congratulate John Kerry this morning on his selection of John Edwards as his running mate,” Gephardt said in a statement. “This is a ticket that can excite, motivate and most importantly defeat George Bush and Dick Cheney in November.”

Gephardt also pledged to continue to work hard to elect Kerry and Edwards and said he looks forward to campaigning with them. 

Support in Iowa
Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, less well-known nationally because he was not a primary contender, was also reportedly on the short list for the second slot on the Democratic ticket.

In a conference call with reporters this morning, Vilsack said he spoke with Edwards on the phone this morning, but declined to elaborate on what was discussed. But he said he was "excited about the prospects of a John Kerry - John Edwards ticket." 

“This is going to be an election about the future of our country, going to be an election about how we make America stronger, an election about how we are going to make America better respected around the world,” said Vilsack. “I know of no two greater persons to carry that message to the Democratic team than John Kerry and John Edwards.”

Vilsack said that both he and his wife Christie, who endorsed Kerry before the Iowa caucus in January, are "committed" to campaigning for Kerry and will do what they can to help get the Kerry-Edwards message "to all corners of the country." 

McCain mum
One of the strongest contenders for Kerry’s choice for running mate was silent on the selection of Edwards – for now. Throughout the process, the Kerry campaign had reportedly hoped to woo Republican Sen. John McCain to cross party lines to defeat President Bush. But McCain rejected those overtures.

Now, the Bush campaign has launched a television ad featuring the Arizona senator that seeks to paint Kerry's selection of Edwards as a second choice.

The 60-second commercial titled "First Choice" shows McCain speaking when he campaigned with Bush in Washington state and Nevada last month. In the footage, McCain praises Bush's efforts in the war on terror, saying the president has led with "great moral clarity and firm resolve."

The ad is to run soon on national cable networks and in selected local media markets in battleground states.

NBC's political team, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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