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For Edwards, a relationship that never quite fit

John Edwards’ experience as a vice-presidential candidate who went down in defeat has clearly influenced his current run for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Image: John Edwards.
Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards on the stump in South Carolina.Mary Ann Chastain / AP file
/ Source: The New York Times

John Edwards, accepting his party’s nomination for vice president, roused a cheering crowd at the 2004 Democratic convention with the kind of buoyant refrain that had become his trademark: “Hope is on the way.”

The next night, wanting to give the American people something more tangible, John Kerry offered his own pledge, one intended as the ticket’s new slogan: “Help is on the way.”

But Mr. Edwards did not want to say it.

So the running mates set off across the country together with different messages, sometimes delivered at the same rally: Mr. Kerry leading the crowd in chants for “help,” Mr. Edwards for “hope.” The campaign printed two sets of signs. By November, the disagreement had been so institutionalized that campaign workers handed out fans with both messages, on flip sides.

To the end of their disappointing run, the two men were unable to agree on the script, whether for slogans or more substantive matters. And like so many political marriages, the one between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards — Senate colleagues who became rivals then running mates but never really friends — ended in recrimination and regrets.

Kerry aides complain that Mr. Edwards never stopped running for president — a Democratic Party official recalled some aides wearing “Edwards for President” pins at a fund-raiser long after they were working for the Kerry-Edwards ticket. Kerry supporters say Mr. Edwards refused to play the traditional vice-presidential role of attack dog even going up against a purebred, Dick Cheney. And Mr. Kerry had barely conceded the race, they say, before Mr. Edwards was aiming for 2008 and embarking on what one campaign aide called the “it wasn’t my fault tour” around his home state to distance himself from the loss.

For his part, aides said, Mr. Edwards felt frustrated by Mr. Kerry’s public agonizing over the war in Iraq and a campaign that seemed to change consultants and message constantly. To Mr. Edwards, Mr. Kerry seemed unable to get out of his own way. He ignored Mr. Edwards’s warning not to go windsurfing, one aide recalled, which led to the infamous “whichever way the wind blows” advertisement mocking Mr. Kerry’s statements on the war. And in the end, Mr. Edwards concluded that Mr. Kerry lacked fight for not filing a legal challenge to the election results.

Today, Mr. Edwards insists he is “the same person I’ve always been.” But his experience as a vice-presidential candidate who went down in defeat has clearly influenced his current run for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Having seen up close the perils of seeming to shift with the wind, he is selling himself as the candidate of “conviction” and “bold ideas” and trying to portray the front-runner, Hillary Rodham Clinton, as tacking for political gain. Once the sunny centrist who did not want to criticize his rivals by name, Mr. Edwards has become the most confrontational candidate in the race. And he has courted his party’s left wing by renouncing his vote on the war, something he counseled Mr. Kerry not to do.

“There’s no question John Edwards is different now than he was in 2004,” said Peter Scher, whom Mr. Kerry recruited to run Mr. Edwards’s vice-presidential campaign. “There’s a great deal more confidence in his own instincts and his own judgment. You see much less reliance on consultants and pollsters and media advisers, and more of a willingness to say what he believes and let the chips fall where they may.”

Kerry loyalists, meanwhile, seethe as they watch his new aggressiveness. Stephanie Cutter, who was Mr. Kerry’s communications director, said, “A lot of what I’m seeing now, I wish I’d seen in 2004.”

Mr. Edwards defends his change in tone, calling it the result of “a maturing process.”

“I believe that presidential candidates actually have a responsibility to point out substantive differences, to point out perspectives that are different,” he said in an interview. “I’m totally comfortable doing it.”

Unlikely pair
John Edwards began campaigning to be John Kerry’s running mate as soon as his own presidential run collapsed when he failed to win any of the Super Tuesday primaries in March 2004. He appeared at rallies for Mr. Kerry. He dispatched emissaries to party officials and Kerry aides, promising that he could raise $20 million and help win his home state, North Carolina, and others the campaign hoped to turn to blue from red. And, as an experienced trial lawyer, he could take on Mr. Cheney.

Mr. Kerry remained hesitant. He had not really known Mr. Edwards in the Senate, and on the primary trail, small resentments had built up. Mr. Kerry wondered why Mr. Edwards thought he could be president before even finishing his first Senate term; Mr. Edwards thought Mr. Kerry did not know how to talk to rural and Southern voters and could not win without them. He bristled at Mr. Kerry’s presumption: when Mr. Kerry said in a debate how he would take on President Bush, Mr. Edwards rebuked him, “Not so fast, John Kerry.”

The two men could hardly have been more different. Mr. Kerry was the craggy Brahmin raised in privilege, Mr. Edwards, smiling, Southern and self-made. Mr. Kerry had all the gravitas Mr. Edwards was often accused of lacking, but Mr. Edwards charmed colleagues and connected with voters in a way that Mr. Kerry could only envy.

Mr. Kerry had spent a career in the Senate, where success depends on accommodating all sides of an issue; he called friends ceaselessly to solicit different points of view until aides seized his cellphone. Mr. Edwards had built his career by choosing a side and not relenting; he was well known for turning down big settlement offers because he was confident he could win his case.

But Mr. Edwards had support in the Senate, and two of Mr. Kerry’s consultants, Robert Shrum and Tad Devine, were pushing for him, too — they liked how he polled in crucial states like Florida and Missouri, and they liked his optimistic populism.

Mr. Edwards and others believed he had done surprisingly well in the primaries because he refused to go negative. Staff members gave away opposition research to other campaigns, one said, because he would not use it.

At the Democratic convention in late July, Mr. Kerry’s advisers encouraged Mr. Edwards to reprise his theme of the primaries, a pledge to bridge the gap between two Americas, one rich, one struggling. Preaching “the politics of hope,” Mr. Edwards mocked the negative campaigning the Republicans were sure to deliver: “Don’t you just hate it?”

‘Pundit lines’
But the convention was barely over when the attacks began, starting with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accusing Mr. Kerry of lying about his military record. Kerry aides complained that Mr. Edwards would resist or try to tone down language when they asked him to deliver negative lines — “pundit lines,” as one of Mr. Edwards’s aides scoffed. He argued it was more important to talk about what the Democrats would do differently rather than what the Republicans had done wrong.

He objected to anything more than the most generic attacks on the Bush administration. After weeks of battering by the Swift boat group, he called only for the president to “stop these ads.” When Mr. Cheney said voting for the Democrats would invite a terror attack, Mr. Edwards called it “un-American.”

“We were getting our heads taken off and he was still talking about two Americas,” said David Morehouse, Mr. Kerry’s traveling chief of staff.

“We were constantly negotiating backwards,” said Marcus Jadotte, a Kerry deputy campaign manager who was assigned to travel with Mr. Edwards. “He refused to get to a place where they were truly in concert.”

As prominent Democrats began calling for Mr. Edwards to be more aggressive, Mr. Kerry met with him in Springfield, Ohio, on the last night of the Republican convention and implored him to be tougher on the Republicans.

Mr. Edwards soon stepped up his rhetoric, particularly in his debate with Mr. Cheney. But the Kerry people saw it as a draw at best.

Some campaign aides speculated that Mr. Edwards was trying to protect his reputation so he could run for president again. Others concluded that he believed the lesson of the primaries was that staying positive worked.

“He thought that the right way to win a campaign was to be about hope and a positive message, and in many ways he’s right,” Mr. Jadotte said. “The reality is, that’s the job of the presidential nominee, not the vice-presidential nominee.”

The Edwards camp complained that it was hard to know what the Kerry campaign wanted, and when. “In the beginning it was what both of us were doing, was running a 100 percent positive campaign, and that was the campaign I came into,” Mr. Edwards said in the recent interview. “It was natural for me.”

Mr. Edwards pointedly declined to talk about his conversations or relationship with Mr. Kerry, saying only, “I respected and admired John Kerry.”

Mr. Edwards understood his job was to be tough on the Bush-Cheney administration. “I did it, and I did it with everything I had,” he said. “Would I have rather been the presidential candidate? Of course. That’s why I ran.”

The two men were better than the sum of their parts on the rare occasions they campaigned together; Mr. Kerry seemed more energetic and easygoing, and Mr. Edwards seemed to present his case for Mr. Kerry better when he was next to him, like a client in a courtroom.

But their differences strained the relationship, and ultimately, the campaign. There were small things, like help-hope. Mr. Kerry inserted “help” into his speech the night before he was to give it. Mr. Edwards’s speech had been written two weeks in advance, and he did not want to change lines. (He tried “help” once, an aide recalled, and thought it sounded goofy.)

And there was the overshadowing issue of Iraq, a debate that brought out everything Mr. Edwards found most maddening about Mr. Kerry.

Both men had voted for the 2002 resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war with Iraq; Mr. Edwards had sponsored it with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut. In 2004, they found themselves in an impossible position: antiwar Democrats were pushing Mr. Kerry to say he would pull out troops, while Republicans were calling him a flip-flopper whenever he tried to attack Mr. Bush on the war.

Mr. Kerry had increasing doubts about the war. But Mr. Edwards argued that they should not renounce their votes — they had to show conviction and consistency.

Mr. Kerry yielded to his running mate after Mr. Bush issued a challenge in early August: would Mr. Kerry still vote the same way, knowing now that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction? Mr. Kerry told reporters he would have voted the same, but done everything else about the war differently.

Gesture of defiance
The Republicans delighted in another flip-flop. Six weeks later, Mr. Kerry gave a speech at New York University declaring that he would not have voted for the war, calling it a “profound diversion” from the real threat, Osama bin Laden. Mr. Edwards had argued against the speech in a conference call into the early morning hours. While Mr. Kerry was hailed for showing resolve, the campaign never fully recovered from the accusation that the Democratic presidential candidate — unlike Mr. Bush — did not know what he stood for.

On Election Day, the running mates spent much of the day believing exit polls that showed them winning. The next morning, with Ohio still up in the air, Mr. Edwards pressed to send lawyers to Columbus to challenge the way the state counted provisional ballots. But Mr. Kerry finally concluded that even winning all those ballots would not make him president.

As the men ended the campaign at Faneuil Hall in Boston, Mr. Edwards refused to say “lose” or “concede” or “defeat” — what his wife, Elizabeth, described in her memoir as his “small gesture” of defiance.

“The fight has just begun,” Mr. Edwards said. “We will keep marching toward that one America, and we’re not going to stop until we get there.”

Kerry aides heard that as his first bid for 2008.

A year later, Mr. Edwards wrote an opinion piece in The Washington Post that began, “I was wrong.” It laid out his case against the war in Iraq.

An interviewer asked Mr. Kerry about it. “I said that before Senator Edwards wrote that,” he replied.

Mr. Kerry felt blindsided both by Mr. Edwards’s apparent determination to run for the presidency again and by his efforts to distance himself from the mistakes of the campaign immediately after the election. In interviews and on his farewell tour of North Carolina, Mr. Edwards said he had wanted to fight harder on the Swift boat attacks. He had wanted to campaign more in the South. And, with so much credit being given to “values voters,” he said that he had wanted to talk more about faith.

Mr. Edwards told Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, that he had wanted to “go after Bush.” “Terry, they wouldn’t let me,” he said, according to Mr. McAuliffe’s book, “What a Party!”

Mr. Kerry declined to comment for this article. A spokesman said he had no interest in relitigating the 2004 race. But he told Mr. McAuliffe that he could not get Mr. Edwards to fight. Kerry aides said, and Mr. Shrum wrote in a memoir, that Mr. Edwards had promised Mr. Kerry that he would not challenge him in a run for the 2008 presidency. Mr. Edwards demurred about any agreement; he told one interviewer in early 2005 that he was focused on seeing his wife through her cancer and would decide “the right thing to do based on what’s going on with my own family.”

Mr. Edwards’s new stance on the war won him new support within his increasingly antiwar party. He knew that people might say his reversal was politically expedient (and Kerry loyalists said just that). But he characterizes it as a matter of conscience.

“The most important thing that had changed was time to reflect on what I’d done,” he said. “I had to live with what I’d done, and I couldn’t live with it if I didn’t tell the truth.”

While Mr. Kerry, too, had emerged as a leading voice against the war after the election, his comments at a campaign event just before the 2006 midterm elections — what he called “a botched joke” about Iraq — raised old doubts about his agility in a campaign. In January, when Mrs. Clinton, Barack Obama and Mr. Edwards already dominated the talk about 2008, Mr. Kerry announced he would not run.

The former running mates have spoken little since that day in Faneuil Hall. In March, Mr. Kerry telephoned the Edwardses after Mr. Edwards announced that his wife’s cancer had returned and was incurable, and that he was still running for president. A spokesman for Mr. Kerry said they had had a nice conversation. A spokesman for Mr. Edwards, however, said Mr. Kerry had spoken only with Elizabeth.