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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JOAN VENNOCHI

Edwards, the anti-Cheney

IF DICK Cheney's pacemaker skipped a beat on Wednesday night, he has every right to blame the Democrats - specifically, the party's vice presidential nominee, John Edwards.

Edwards made a strong, passionate, at times, evangelical-sounding case for John Kerry. It isn't so much what Edwards has to say, but his style, presence, and confidence-brimming bearing that would give any opponent agita - at first blush, anyway.

The handsome senator from North Carolina loves the spotlight. It is obvious from the moment he glides onto a stage. He knows exactly how long to soak in the applause and cheers before starting to speak. His facial muscles pull tautly up, supporting a wide, eager smile. The accent is cozy and inviting. And the words that pour out couldn't be more promising: Hope is on the way. It is a Southern white man's take on Jesse Jackson's long ago cry to ''keep hope alive.''

On paper and in person, in looks and in experience, the trial lawyer on the Democratic ticket is the anti-Cheney. It would be superficial to talk about appearances, except that appearances matter in Washington as much as in Hollywood. Cheney is quirky at best, and through the television screen, often dour, with a down-curling lip that only a neocon could find appealing. The hair issue has already been overanalyzed, so let's leave it at the obvious: Edwards has a lot, and Cheney doesn't. Adorable kids and the tragedy of a child's death also help to humanize the attractive Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth.

Once you get past appearances and examine more closely what Edwards had to say, it is pretty standard Democratic promise-mongering. There will be more of everything for the middle class, and the rich will pay for it. Again, it is how Edwards says it that is appealing.

He was eloquent in telling Democrats the candidates should talk about racial issues to everyone, everywhere, instead of tailoring the message to specific audiences.

One effective moment in his Wednesday night speech came when he spoke about the reality of people struggling from paycheck to paycheck, and the impact of a setback such as losing your job.

''What do you lose first?'' he asked the audience, which responded somewhat tentatively, and with a relatively prosaic answer: health care. But Edwards's answer was poetry. What do you lose first? ''Your dreams.''

On the big stage, Edwards's delivery has a touch of Bill Starbuck, the dreamer/con man in N. Richard Nash's play ''The Rainmaker.'' Starbuck promises to conjure up rain if a farm family gives him $100 they can ill afford. In the end, there is the requisite Hollywood miracle, that plays against the case Starbuck makes to never stop believing that someday, something wonderful will happen, if only you have faith in yourself and your imagination. Harold Hill in ''The Music Man'' is another optimist who comes to mind when Edwards is speaking.   Continued...

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