An Asset Outside the South?

John Edwards is a happy warrior. "My campaign is about an uplifting, positive image for America," the senator from North Carolina told voters in the Democratic primaries.

Edwards is often compared to Bill Clinton as a politician with the common touch. "I want to be a champion for the people I have fought for all of my life, regular people," Edwards said in announcing his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Edwards's message is one of economic populism, or, as he put it, of "closing the great divide that exists between two Americas—those who live lives of privilege and never have to worry about a thing, and then most of America." In exit polls during the Democratic primaries, voters who said their main concern was the economy and jobs went for Edwards.

Then how come John Kerry won the nomination? Kerry is rarely described as a happy warrior. He is a New England patrician who doesn't seem to have a populist bone in his body. Yet voters felt he had the right experience to be the Democratic presidential nominee. Among voters who put a premium on experience, Edwards ran way behind Kerry.

Edwards tried to make a virtue of inexperience by running as a Washington outsider. But Democrats weren't looking for an outsider this year. They were looking for someone who could beat President Bush. A lot of questions were raised about Edwards's ability to do that. In the January 4 Iowa debate, he was asked, "With less than one full Senate term under your belt, how do you convince American voters that you can go head-to-head with the Bush foreign-policy team?" He couldn't. That's why he is not at the top of the ticket. But his lack of experience may not matter so much in the No. 2 spot.

Does Edwards make the Democratic ticket competitive in the South? He made that argument when he was running for president, telling voters in South Carolina, "The South is not George Bush's backyard. It is my backyard, and I am going to beat George Bush in my backyard."

Experts on Southern politics dispute that claim. Hastings Wyman, editor of The Southern Political Report, said, "I don't see Edwards making an effective argument. I think most Southern voters have an easy time identifying with President Bush."

Bush vowed last week, "I am going to carry the South, because the people understand that we share values." The Democratic ticket is balanced geographically, Republicans argue, but not philosophically. As one South Carolina Republican put it, "Senator Edwards has the right accent but the wrong voting record." Republicans think they can thwart Kerry in the South with, Wyman said, "some very strong stuff on social issues, probably emphasizing his anti-war activities after Vietnam."

But Democrats don't have to be competitive throughout the South. They just need to break Bush's solid grip on the region. With Edwards on the ticket, Democrats may be able to cherry-pick one or two Southern states. Merle Black, an expert on Southern politics at Emory University, said, "If [the Democrats] can carry one or two of these Southern states—North Carolina or Florida—then it's virtually impossible to see how President Bush could win re-election."

Edwards may also help Democrats outside the South. "I think a lot of middle-of-the-road voters outside the South like the presence of a Southerner on the Democratic ticket," Wyman said. "It reassures them that the Democrat will not be too liberal." So while Southern voters may be driven away by Edwards's voting record, Northern voters may be attracted by Edwards's accent. How strange is that?

Edwards's selection is also causing some Republicans to worry about their vice presidential nominee. To many Democrats, Dick Cheney is scary. "He is our [new] Newt Gingrich," Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe said, meaning that opposition to Cheney will help turn out the Democratic vote.

Bush thinks that Cheney provides a useful contrast with the less experienced Edwards. After noting that Edwards is being described as "charming, engaging, a nimble campaigner, a populist, and even sexy," a reporter asked Bush, "How does he stack up against Dick Cheney?" Bush's response: "Dick Cheney can be president." The Democrats' response? Cheney already is president. Kerry said Bush "is right that Dick Cheney was ready to take over on day one. And he did." The question Democrats intend to ask is, "Can Bush be president?"

Last week, a prominent Republican said aloud what some Republicans have been thinking: Bush should dump Cheney. "I will shock Republicans and probably get them angry," former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., said, "but I think we can do better." That's a sign that some Republicans are nervous, much as they were when Bush's father ran for re-election in 1992 and was being urged to dump Dan Quayle. The first President Bush's response: "He has been a super vice president. And he will be for another four years."

This President Bush will almost certainly have the same response, because Cheney has real political value. The Republican base loves him. He also symbolizes Bush's steadfastness in the war on terror. Dumping Cheney would send exactly the wrong message for an administration that warns, "Change is dangerous." The Bush campaign has spent a lot of money on ads branding Kerry as a flip-flopper. If Bush were to dump Cheney, Democrats would respond within seconds, "Look who's flip-flopping now."