If Sen. John Kerry isn’t going to pick Sen. John Edwards to be his running mate, he’s sure putting him through his paces. At the Kerry campaign’s request, the North Carolinian is doing four major events in June, three in battleground states. The headliner is the mid-month Jefferson-Jackson Weekend in Florida. If Edwards is a hit there, he could be on his way to the vice presidential nomination in Boston in July.
It’s no surprise that Edwards is getting the closest of looks. He’s been a leading contender, if not the clear choice, since the foreshortened primary season, in which he came from nowhere to within shouting distance of the nomination. His talent, brains, discipline and charm were and are obvious; the main drawbacks are his lack of experience (especially in foreign and military affairs) and such an evident hunger for the White House that it can make even a man such as Kerry — no wallflower in the ambition department — nervous.
The two men don’t like each other much, but there is no deep enmity and they are now, at the very least, using each other in a classic exercise in mutual back-scratching. Kerry is asking Edwards to pursue a heavy schedule of fund-raising and political events; Edwards is only too happy to do it — as an audition for the veep slot but also as a way to build his own grass-roots and state party ties for the long haul he has just barely begun.
Since May, mostly at Kerry’s behest, Edwards has traveled to party events in Minnesota, Colorado, South and North Carolina, Washington State and North Dakota. More important, and more to the point, he has made three stops on three different dates in Ohio, perhaps the ultimate battleground state. As it happens, Kerry’s Ohio media director is Jennifer Palmieri, one of the party’s savviest and best-liked operatives. Her previous job: Edward’s campaign-trail press secretary. A meaningless coincidence? Perhaps. A handy accident if Edwards is the running mate? For sure.
Where does the process stand?
And just where is Kerry in the veep selection process? Edwards’ busy schedule in June, culminating in the Iowa state convention at the end of the month, is strong evidence that the presumptive nominee is unlikely to announce a selection until the July 4th weekend at the earliest. Some of his top staff had been aiming and hoping for an earlier announcement — as early as the end of this month. But with President Bush lashed to the mast of Iraq, what’s the hurry? And in the meantime Kerry can have the several vice presidential contenders — others include Rep. Dick Gephardt, Gov. Tom Vilsack and retired Gen. Wes Clark — busy trying to prove their worth as they raise money and the party standard from coast to coast.
But the list is relatively small, and Kerry isn’t making a big deal of publicly advertised private meetings with the potential finalists. He is proceeding that way because of his bitter memories of the way Al Gore handled things in 2000: a long list and public ring-kissing exercises. “He hated that, felt it humiliating and isn’t going to put these guys through that kind of thing,” said one top Democratic strategist. Instead, Kerry is tending to make phone calls from the road to each of the top tier every week or so to talk over what their dossiers contain and get a feel for their thinking.
Meanwhile, his aides are studying public and private polls, several of which show that Edwards — short of an astounding switch by Sen. John McCain — would be perhaps the most complementary running mate available given his appeal (as shown in some of the primaries) to “soft” Republicans and independents in the suburbs. Edwards also is running well, usually ahead, in national polls of Democrats as to whom they would prefer as No. 2 — especially when (as is justified) Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton is left out of the equation. Edwards’ other qualification: He’s a client of Kerry’s top media strategist and adviser, Washingtonian Robert Shrum.
There are polls that show Edwards would do more for the ticket in Florida than either of the two sitting senators from there, though it’s hard to dismiss the galvanizing effect on Florida Democrats that the selection of Sen. Bob Graham — a beloved figure — might have. That’s why it’ll be interesting to see how Edwards does at the Florida “JJ” in Hollywood later this month. Graham, who has been carefully vetted by the campaign, is busy writing a book — a project he takes seriously but that also gives him a dignified “out.” If Edwards is a hit in Hollywood, Graham may need one.
Howard Fineman is Newsweek’s chief political correspondent and an NBC News analyst.