WASHINGTON – John Edwards’ emergence as the Democratic vice presidential nominee may well have a larger impact outside his native South than within it, several experts on southern politics said Tuesday.

Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Tuesday selected former rival Edwards to be his running mate, calling the rich former trial lawyer and rookie senator a man who showed “guts and determination and political skill” in his unsuccessful race for the party’s nomination.

Despite his frequent boast during the primaries that “the South is not George Bush’s back yard, the South is my back yard,” the North Carolina senator is not expected to make a major difference anywhere in the region outside his home state, the experts said.

“I think it will make North Carolina competitive. I don’t think it affects any other southern state,” said Merle Black, professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta and co-author of a book examining the Republican rise to dominance in the South.

But Edwards could provide a significant boost to Kerry in several swing states that border the South – and a few that are far removed from it.

Edwards’ well-practiced populist message of a nation divided between the hard-working, under-rewarded many and the well-connected, venal few could resonate in places where the economy has yet to recover from the 2001 recession. And some of those places happen to be located in the most contested territory of the campaign, such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

“John Edwards will deliver a message that will ring true in many parts of Ohio,” said Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political scientist who closely follows his state’s politics. “The economy in Ohio is still struggling and Edwards has been probably the most inspirational and articulate candidate in talking about the economy.”

In addition, Edwards’ southern accent and mannerisms could give the Democratic ticket an entree in regions and states bordering the South where many voters have southern roots, such as Missouri, West Virginia and southern Ohio.

Finally, Edwards showed a strong appeal with rural voters during the primaries that could give his ticket a lift in those swing states and at least two others, Wisconsin and Iowa. Edwards finished a close second in both the Wisconsin primary and the Iowa caucuses.

All of this leads most political experts to conclude that Kerry helped himself significantly – and demonstrated an icy resolve to seize the main chance – when he set aside past differences and picked Edwards as his running mate.

“Edwards adds strength,” said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where. But he lifts a pall in the Kerry camp. Their guy just frankly isn’t very good when it comes to giving speeches and exciting crowds. Now he’s got Edwards to do it.”

This analysis suggests that Edwards’ impact will be broader – but also more diffuse – than the more traditional role of a running mate, which is to shore up support along demographic or geographic lines.

In the case of Edwards’ region, it has been trending Republican in presidential races for nearly two generations. The last Democratic nominee, Al Gore, did not carry a single southern state, including his own Tennessee. Before Tuesday, most analysts said Kerry could expect to be competitive only in Florida.

Recent polling suggests Edwards’ selection will instantly put North Carolina in the toss-up category, but hardly guarantee a Kerry victory there. Even that would be a tactical win for the Democrats, because forcing Bush to spend time and money on North Carolina would subtract from what he could spend elsewhere.

Beyond North Carolina, the experts said, it is hard to see another southern state where Edwards would make his ticket competitive. Democrats have talked about making a play for Louisiana and Arkansas, two states carried by Bill Clinton in 1996, but most experts remain skeptical even with Edwards on the ticket.

While Democrats exuded confidence about Edwards’ selection, Republicans were quick to point out his potential weaknesses: a relatively meager political resume and a long-time connection to trial lawyers, a group Republicans frequently blame for rising insurance rates among other economic ills.

“One week ago, the United States transferred power to a sovereign government in Iraq. By choosing John Edwards … the Democrats today transferred power in their party from the labor unions to the trial lawyers,” said Grover Norquist, a veteran conservative activist and sometimes Bush political adviser.


Asher said he did not think the lack-of-experience argument would be hard to counter, given Bush’s equally thin political record when he ran for president in 2000. He said Edwards’ trial lawyer background might be more problematic, but noted that Edwards has become adept at blunting the issue with emotion-laden stories of his cases representing ordinary people harmed by big corporations.

One Democratic source acknowledged there was some worry within the party over the trial lawyer line of attack, but said it would only be a problem if Democrats allowed themselves to be thrown on the defensive by it. “That won’t happen,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

(c) 2004, Newsday.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.


PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): KERRY-EDWARDS

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040706 EDWARDS Cheney, 20040706 EDWARDS bio

AP-NY-07-06-04 2001EDT

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