Byline: Jamie Dettmer, INSIGHT
Latte liberals who turned out en masse for the 90-minute debate between the Democratic candidates at Wisconsin's Marquette University on Feb. 15 found their firebrand hero Howard Dean disappointing. There was none of the red meat they had come to expect in fact, the former Vermont governor appeared relatively docile compared to North Carolina's Sen. John Edwards, the former trial lawyer who had made a political virtue of being nice and avoiding negative attacks on rivals.
Instead of blood and guts from Dean, the audience at Marquette saw a much tougher Edwards set out to sharpen his policy differences with Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. In the process the one-term senator cautioned the Democratic front-runner not to be "so fast" in assuming that he had wrapped up the party's nomination. By contrast, and even when coaxed, Dean declined to repeat his past accusations that Kerry is "part of the same corrupt political culture" as George W. Bush because of the Massachusetts senator's ties to "special interests."
For the less politically sophisticated in the audience the whole exercise was perplexing, but for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the shift in rhetoric was significant. For all of Edwards' warnings to Kerry not to assume the race for the Democratic presidential nomination was over, both the North Carolina populist and Dean were auditioning for a new role namely, pitching to be chosen as Kerry's running mate. They just picked different ways of doing so.
Welcome to the veepstakes. Due to Kerry's early command of the primaries maneuvering for the vice presidency has come earlier this election cycle than is normal. Vice President John Nance Garner of Texas famously said the job wasn't worth a bucket of warm something-or-other, but in recent times the choice of the man to be a heartbeat away from the presidency has become increasingly important both in terms of the running mate being able to boost a ticket during the campaign and later too when it comes to governing the country.
"Edwards is out now to show he can be muscular and go mano a mano with [Vice President Dick] Cheney, and Dean as he withdrew from the race needed to demonstrate maturity and an ability to be able to tone down and appeal to swing voters," says a Democratic insider.
And Edwards since his strong showing in the Wisconsin primary has continued to toughen up when it comes to competing with Kerry. Dean, since his withdrawal from the race a couple of days after the Marquette debate, has been careful not to repeat his earlier criticism of the Massachusetts senator as a member of the politically corrupt gang in Washington.
Not that Edwards is ready to express interest in the running-mate slot to do so would spell immediate doom for his presidential campaign. But few party insiders doubt that either Edwards or Dean would reject an approach from Kerry when the time is right. Behind the scenes, supporters of both are talking up their veep credentials, with Edwards' backers being the most forthright. The argument in favor of Edwards is that the one-term senator has proved what an effective campaigner he can be, especially in the the South and among African-Americans.
"Edwards can dent Bush in the South and help eke out a victory or two south of the Mason-Dixon. That could be enough in a likely tight presidential contest to deliver the White House for Kerry," pronounces an Edwards aide. Some prominent African-American politicians have gone on the record as wanting a Kerry-Edwards pairing. Rep. Jim Clyburn, South Carolina's senior black politician, said: "I do believe that with a Kerry-Edwards ticket we can sweep this nation and bring the South along with it." And the Rev. Jesse Jackson has voiced confidence in a Kerry-Edwards ticket.
The North Carolina senator's advocates maintain that Edwards has a populist and charismatic touch that the much stiffer and patrician Kerry is unable to muster and that he has an ability to appeal to rural voters not just in the South but in the Midwest, too, where the general election could be finally decided. …