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THE ARMCHAIR STRATEGIST

Pick a VP candidate now, senator

ONCE ILLINOIS gives him delegates needed for nomination, John Kerry should pick running mate. Needs another voice against Bush/Cheney. For easier viewing, Armchair Strategist has arranged them in proper order.

* John Edwards, campaigner extraordinaire. Who better to defend Kerry and cross-examine Bush administration than great trial lawyer? Would kill Cheney in debate. Already vetted. Alas, may be too good for own good. Could upstage Kerry. Clintons don't want him on ticket. Win or lose, he's in Hillary's way. Official reason: No foreign policy experience. Real excuse: No rock stars allowed.

* Bill Nelson, no-rock-star senator from Florida. Ex-astronaut, moderate, married 30 years to same woman. Fraud-fighter as state insurance commissioner. Good on environment and vets issues. Regular Army, rose to captain. Won't upstage Big Guy. Florida is national stage and reminds Dems everywhere of illegitimacy of Bush presidency. Liabilities: Personality of astronaut. Unknown outside of Florida. Senate colleague and notorious diarist Bob Graham may elbow him aside.

* Evan Bayh, former governor and now senator from Indiana. Serves on Senate Intelligence Committee. Young, ambitious, good blood line. But antiabortion-rights position may trouble organized feminists. Kerry campaign manager once ran Emily's List. On blue state/red state map, Indiana is red as Mars, alien to Dems.

* Bill Richardson, New Mexico governor who negotiates with North Korea in spare time. Two problems: As Clinton's UN ambassador, agreed to hire Monica Lewinsky. As energy secretary, fired Chinese-born US scientist falsely accused of stealing nuclear secrets at Los Alamos lab. Secrets later found on computer disks behind copy machine. Asian-Americans not pleased. Richardson, Mexican-American, can help more off ticket than on it.

* Straight Talk Express II, John McCain for VP? Two vets, two men who worked together to heal wounds of Vietnam War. Put him on ticket? Get real. McCain and Kerry are political Bennifer. Look good together but totally incompatible records. McCain voted for John Ashcroft for AG, for Star Wars, against abortion rights, against raising minimum wage, against Brady Bill, for posting Ten Commandments in public schools, against Kyoto global warming treaty. Hot enough for you?

Ad nauseam. With $100 million in bank, George Bush, in panic, attacks Kerry in TV spots eight months early. Using $22 mill of our taxes to sell us defective new Medicare law. Pro-Bush Campaign United spot pokes fun of Kerry's elitist lifestyle. (Who would do such a thing?) Self-described "attack dog" Club for Growth (offshoot of Hair Club for Men) promises to club Kerry with $1 mill TV buy.

On other side, George Soros's Media Fund chips in $4.5 mill on TV to bash Bush. MoveOn puts few mill on TV to move out Bush. AFL-CIO ready with $44 mill to depose man who rose to power in Supreme Court junta. Gay Republicans led by Jane Swift's temporary Lieutenant Gov candidate, Patrick Guerrero, knock Bush on TV for using gay families as wedge issue. Guerrero says 25 percent of gays voted for Bush last time. (What campaign were they watching?)

Advice to Kerry: Mortgage another home and buy network TV spots and cable TV to tell your story. If nothing else, voters should know you're decorated Vietnam veteran.

That 9/11 image. Bush TV spot uses WTC wreckage and flag-draped stretcher of firefighter (actor). Family members who lost loved ones on 9/11 angrily protested. Bush "Amen Chorus" (stole that from Pat Buchanan) blamed Kerry. USA Today/CNN poll asks Americans if appropriate for Bush to use images from 9/11. Yes 42 percent, No 54 percent. Crawford, you've got a problem.

GOP: It's the terrorism, stupid. ABC-Post poll asked who'd do better job against terrorism. Bush leads by 21 points, 57 percent to 36 percent. "Dammit, get Musharraf on phone and tell him to find Osama! And hold him until October."

Dem: It's the economy, stupid. Same poll has Kerry with double-digit leads on economy (+12 percentage points), Social Security (16 points), education (12), budget deficit (15) and health care (20). Bush job approval last March 62-35; this March 50-48, huge 25-point turnaround. Caution: Kerry support is soft and more anti-Bush than pro-Kerry.

Who's creating jobs? Bush campaign said puny 21,000 job growth in February proves president's policies working. (Even if millions of Americans aren't.) Economic Policy Institute found no net jobs were created at all, except 20,000 jobs in state government, mostly in education. Need a job? Ask a teacher.

Ready to rumble. Democrats unrecognizably united. No whining from interest groups, no holdouts by ex-rivals. GOP already on attack. As Sopranos say, let's do this thing.

Dan Payne is a Boston-based media consultant who worked on John Kerry's Senate campaigns and for Michael Dukakis during the 1988 presidential primaries. His column appears on alternating Saturdays and Sundays.

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