CLEVELAND – America’s newest political couple, John Kerry and John Edwards, sealed their union Wednesday, clasping hands and joking their way through the battleground states of Ohio and Florida.

“It’s a thrill for me to have another guy with hair on the road,” Kerry said, formally presenting his equally well-coiffed Democratic running mate for the first time.

The implicit theme for the day was introductions, with Kerry not only showing off his running mate but also taking advantage of media coverage and several campaign events to renew his contact with voters. And the former primary rivals were re-introducing themselves to each other, with much hand-shaking, hugging and draping of arms around shoulders.

After the two addressed a teachers union convention by teleconference from Cleveland, Kerry slapped Edwards on the upper arm and said, “good job.” They clasped hands and gave the crowd in Washington two thumbs up.

When the camera went off, Kerry said: “You could feel the energy there from here.”

The day started with the candidates’ first public appearance together as ticket mates, along with their families, in a lush part of the Pennsylvania estate owned by Kerry’s wife, Teresa. Edwards called his selection “a great privilege for me – a great opportunity for me to serve my country, which I love so dearly.”

As Republicans continued to hammer Kerry and Edwards as a pair of liberal pessimists, the Massachusetts and North Carolina senators outlined their approach to the coming campaign – an emphasis on jobs, affordable health care and rebuilding foreign alliances.

“We’re ready to do the most important work of our country, which is to make America strong at home again and respected in the world,” Kerry said in the pair’s first public rally, at a park near the Cleveland lakefront.

They plan to stop this week in several battleground states that should decide the election. After Wednesday’s appearances in Ohio and Florida, the team campaigns in the tightly contested states of West Virginia and New Mexico, before a weekend homecoming for Edwards in the newly competitive North Carolina.

Republicans, meanwhile, said that the election of Kerry and Edwards would lead to higher taxes and more regulation. They brandished a National Journal analysis naming Edwards the fourth-most liberal senator; that same survey ranked Kerry first in that category.

“John Kerry’s choice of John Edwards as his running mate cements their position as the most out of the mainstream ticket in the history of the Democratic Party,” said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

The candidates were also drawn into a cross-country squabble with Bush and Republicans over whether Edwards had enough experience to be president. At a Dayton, Ohio, park that features statues of the Wright brothers and their original airplane, Kerry mocked Bush for implying that Edwards would not be ready to assume the office.

“You say he’s scared? What do you say?” Kerry asked the crowd.

He added that Edwards has more experience than Bush did when he became president, “and better judgment.” Edwards is finishing his first six-year Senate term, his only political office; Bush had been Texas governor for six years when he moved to the White House.

Edwards did not mention the Bush comments but did challenge the president on foreign policy: “We need a commander in chief who will lead the world, not bully it.”

But Wednesday’s whirlwind of campaign stops was less about such issues than about presenting a sunny picture of the new ticket. At their initial rallies in Cleveland and then Dayton, both men worked to allay concerns about personal compatibility that had led some analysts to doubt whether he would be Kerry’s choice.

Telling the crowd that Cleveland had the nation’s first electric streetlights, Kerry said: “Today, you are the first city in America to get a different kind of electricity called John Edwards.”

And he couldn’t resist an allusion to the nation’s top-grossing film by saying: “The only person who had a better week than John Kerry and John Edwards was Spider-Man.”

Citing Edwards’ humble beginnings in a North Carolina mill town, Kerry said: “This is a man who defines opportunity.”

Edwards in turn cited Kerry’s background as a Vietnam veteran, local prosecutor and two-decade senator.

“He would never leave any American behind,” Edwards said.

The two also continued to share the lines and themes they honed in the primary season. Edwards borrowed a Kerry reference to the Iraq war, saying: “No young American will ever go to war needlessly because America has decided to go it alone.”

The campaign sought to turn the rallies into family affairs. Teresa Heinz Kerry introduced Elizabeth Edwards, who in turn introduced John Kerry, who was followed by John Edwards.

Each made reference to their kids, particularly Edwards toddlers Jack and Emma Claire and their antics at the Heinz pool.

Both candidates stressed “optimism” as Republicans criticized the ticket for what it calls an overly pessimistic view of a growing economy and progress in the war on terrorism.

“We’ve got better vision. We’ve got better ideas. We’ve got real plans,” Kerry said in Cleveland. “We’ve got a better sense of what’s happening to America, and we’ve got better hair.”

That repeated joke, Kerry told reporters on his campaign plane, led his wife to worry about a slice of the electorate.

“You just lost the bald vote,” he quoted her as saying.

Later, the senators led a rally in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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At the Heinz estate Wednesday morning, Kerry said the surrounding steel and coal region “represents the challenges here in our country of putting people back to work, providing health care and restoring hope.”

“This is the beginning of our effort to talk to America and have a conversation that is hopeful and optimistic and positive,” he said.

Teresa Heinz Kerry, heir to the Heinz ketchup fortune, said the people of Pittsburgh and the surrounding area have suffered for more than two decades from lost jobs and pollution, citing Ohio, West Virginia and even down to Tennessee.

Elizabeth Edwards, also a lawyer, outlined the work ahead for the ticket in the coming months, noting that with less than four months to go, the would-be president is not familiar to many Americans.

“We have only a few months to make sure the rest of the country knows John and Teresa as well as we do,” she said.

In a lighter moment, Edwards revealed his thoughts when the call from Kerry inviting him to join the ticket came in.

“My assumption was it was another reporter saying, “Do you know anything?”‘ Edwards said.


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