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Edwards focus turns to Kerry bid

SEATTLE -- Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, apostle of optimism on the primary trail, began his remarks here last week with a zinger about President Bush's recent prime-time press conference. Edwards sported a near-orange tan, his trademark blue suit and red tie, and beamed, far more at ease on stage than the two US senators preceding him.

''You know it must be an amazing thing to live a life where, when you're asked multiple times whether you've questioned anything you've done, whether you've made any mistakes . . . you can't think of a single thing," he said. The 1,000-plus crowd began chortling loudly. Edwards's voice rose.

''Well I have a suggestion for the president. If he's struggling with that question, give me a call," he said. ''I'll give him an answer."

The partisan crowd erupted. During this standard, ho-hum fund-raising lunch for Senator Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington, the audience would give Edwards five standing ovations.

The bruising primary season now a distant memory, the transformation of John Edwards from fresh new face to consummate national player appears complete. Few in the party can match his oratory skills, tireless glad-handing, and automaton-like ability to turn on the charm.

But for so meteoric a rise, it may all soon end for Edwards. He abandoned his Senate seat to run for president. No other high-stature North Carolina political office awaits him. Political unemployment beckons. And so, Edwards's fate rests in the hands of Senator John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, now casting about for a running mate in his quest for the presidency.

For Edwards, it is a precarious moment, one separating him from continued play on the national stage -- and becoming a footnote in presidential history.

Edwards declined numerous interview requests for this story and left the Seattle speech without speaking to reporters. His aides said he is aware that vice-presidential hopefulscannot appear overly eager in public -- though he is just that in private.

Late last month, Edwards quietly restarted his political action committee, calling it the One America PAC, after his primary campaign theme, and hiring eight staffers to help raise money for his continued travels and for other Democrats. He has complied with requests from Kerry to give interviews on select television shows. But beyond a few superficial conversations, there has been little in the way of formal auditioning for the running-mate slot, said his aides. His primary performance was the audition, they said.

Exploiting his heightened postprimary stature, Edwards stumped last month for a North Dakota senator. Last week, it was Washington state. Later this month, he will stump for another Democrat in his home state of North Carolina. In May, he starts off in South Carolina.

Legislating does not appear to interest Edwards these days: In the month after dropping out of the primary race, he missed 17 of 32 Senate votes, according to an analysis by The Charlotte Observer newspaper. He has introduced several bills based on his working-class campaign themes, though they appear unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate.

Instead, Edwards's attention is trained on the Kerry camp. There, a tightly-guarded debate is raging over the running-mate pick, which will be Kerry's first major public decision. Kerry's campaign refuses to comment on Edwards's prospects, though it has had several postprimary meetings with the North Carolinian.

Last month, Edwards stood at center stage between Kerry and Bill Clinton at a Democratic unity dinner. On Tuesday, Edwards is scheduled to appear with Kerry at two fund-raisers in Florida.

During the primary, there was widespread sentiment among Democrats to put Edwards on the ticket. But pragmatism governs Kerry's camp as the Massachusetts senator and his aides review the possibilities. Edwards's lack of foreign policy experience, a liability for him in the primary campaign, may again hurt him as matters grow more complicated in Iraq.

And despite his boasts about hailing from the South, Edwards probably would not be able to deliver even his home state of North Carolina for the Democrats -- a point made during the primaries by Kerry -- much less other states in the Republican-dominated region. Representative Richard A. Gephardt, Democrat of Missouri, probably has more pull in his home state, a crucial battleground, as does another contender from a swing state, Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico.

''Gephardt, I think, could bring them Missouri, a key state. If he could do just that, it would be worth it," said Bay State GOP political consultant Charley Manning. ''Edwards doesn't bring very much to the table. . . . I think next year he'll be making cases before juries."

Indeed, several law firms have approached Edwards and his wife, Elizabeth, about future positions, according to acquaintances of the family.

But another school of thought among political specialists views Edwards as the standout in a weak field of alternatives. Many pundits assume the presidential race will be decided in the Rust Belt, in blue collar-heavy battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Missouri, West Virginia, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Oddly enough, though the South appears to be beyond Edwards's sphere of influence, the Midwest may not be. Several political specialists say Edwards could help Kerry win over socially conservative, but economically liberal, working-class voters in the Rust Belt.

''Because he's from the South and has that drawl, it carries the expectation that he will be more moderate. This helps in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and other industrial states," said Theodore S. Arrington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. ''And work, as a moral issue, is the theme he does best of all. And that works well in those states, too."

Todd Domke, a Massachusetts-based GOP consultant, concurred: ''Ironically, Edwards as a Southerner would have more appeal in the Midwest than the other Midwestern politicians."

During the Democratic primary, Edwards pushed the theme of ''Two Americas" riven by class and wealth, proclaiming himself the champion of the working class, rarely missing an opportunity to mention his own modest South Carolina mill town roots. Exit polling from several primaries indicated Edwards performed better than Kerry among GOP and independent voters, with a strong showing among those who were influenced by concern about the economy.

After Edwards's Seattle speech, Dick Gidner, 73, of Renton, Wash., said: ''He clearly is interested in, and talks to, the people. John Kerry is a little more patrician, a little more aloof. So they would make a good combination."

Focus groups conducted by labor unions last month in St. Louis and Philadelphia found that Kerry ''doesn't warm anybody up" and fails to connect to many working-class voters. Meanwhile, the same focus groups viewed Bush as having ''good moral values."

In Seattle last Thursday, Edwards opened with praise for Kerry, whom he once implied had too privileged an upbringing to represent working-class interests.

''I knew John Kerry well before this presidential campaign. I know him much better now. Here is a man who has fought for jobs, health care, clean air, clean water, . . . put his life on the line in Vietnam," said Edwards. ''This man needs to be president of the United States."

He then launched into his old ''Two Americas" stump speech, as if the primaries were only yesterday. Nonetheless, it prompted several standing ovations. But Edwards closed on an unusually personal note: ''I've learned two great lessons in my life. One is that there will always be heartache and struggle."

Many in the audience knew that Edwards's teenage son, Wade, died in a car accident several years ago, a turning point in the senator's life. The room was silent.

''The other is that people of good will can make a difference," said Edwards. ''Together, with John Kerry in the White House, we will build one America that works for everybody."

''Fantastic," said Lucy Pruzan, 65, of Seattle, as Edwards left the stage to raucous applause. ''He brings a lot of excitement and the common touch. He could bring that to the campaign."

Of more than a dozen people in attendance interviewed, none said an ill word about Edwards. And almost all wanted him on the ticket.

A March poll by Case Western Reserve University indicated 20 percent of those interviewed thought Edwards would be the strongest vice-presidential pick, followed by 12 percent for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and 11 percent for Senator John S. McCain, Republican of Arizona.

McCain was floated late last month as an unconventional pick, but has emphatically denied he would accept an offer from Kerry. Other names mentioned include Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, Senators Bill Nelson and Bob Graham of Florida, Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, and former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, a member of the Sept. 11 Commission.

''I think that perhaps the most compelling argument for Edwards is that, by process of elimination, he seems the strongest," said GOP consultant Domke. ''What is most striking about this field is how weak it is."

And if Edwards fails to get the nod?

''I think he's going to campaign this fall for Democrats," said Thad Beyle, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ''But after that, it's just not clear."

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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