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JOAN VENNOCHI

How about Howard?

JOHN KERRY wanted Arizona Senator John McCain, a charismatic Republican, as his running mate. It's funny that the man who will be the Democratic presidential nominee is searching for charisma in a running mate, because his party could not stand the idea of Howard Dean, a charismatic Democrat, topping the ticket in November.

News accounts of Kerry's overtures and McCain's ultimate rebuff focus on the tempting idea of a bipartisan ticket that could reach across the vituperative divide in American politics. But Kerry would also benefit from the edgy energy and tell-it-like-it-is approach politicians like McCain and Dean exemplify. Settling for the handsome but bland optimism of North Carolina Senator John Edwards makes safe political sense. But it also shows the limits of tolerance for spark, verve, and controversy when Democrats think about selling fellow Democrats to voters or when Republicans think of selling fellow Republicans like McCain to voters.

Dean is a doctor and a former governor; McCain is a senator. They hail from different backgrounds, but still there are similarities in the presidential campaigns they waged and lost. Like Dean, McCain energized independent voters when he competed in Republican presidential primaries via the "Straight Talk Express" in 2000. Like Dean, McCain was undone at least partly by opponents who undercut his message by focusing media attention on questions about temperament. Dean made it easy for opponents by showing a wild and crazy side on television after finishing third in the Iowa caucuses. In McCain's case, the issue was raised more subtly, by revisiting his years of captivity as a prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict.

Four years later, the provocative Republican was Kerry's first choice for vice president; a provocative Democrat who brought heart, soul, and an energized base to his party's primaries is on the sidelines. Dean had the courage to call Bush on Iraq, the Patriot Act, and No Child Left Behind. The former Vermont governor's passionate rhetoric forced Kerry to challenge these cornerstones of Bush administration policy, which Kerry previously supported with votes in the US Senate.

"You could hear my lines in their speeches." Dean told the AP in a recent interview reflecting on his amazing rise and fall in presidential politics. The rhetorical theft began after his opponents realized the potency of those spoken lines and their ability to galvanize liberal Democrats and indepent voters. Dean wanted to "Take Back America" long before Kerry understood how many voters feel that way, too. By telling audiences "you have the power," he linked voting to change, the first step in taking back the White House. All the anti-Bush sentiment is meaningless if Bush opponents don't take the next step -- actually voting.

Kerry moved from stealing Dean's lines to stealing Edwards's riff on "two Americas." Now The New York Times reports that Democratic senators and Senate candidates are pressing Kerry to choose Edwards as his running mate on the theory that he would help them and the party in the South. "Edwards is from the South and speaks Southern, and I think that would be helpful to the candidates in that regard," Senator John B. Breaux of Louisiana told the Times, However, how does "speaking Southern" help Kerry with those independents who liked Dean's style of "speaking McCain" -- in other words, speaking boldly?

A June 8-9 national poll taken by Opinion Dynamcs Corp. for Fox News provides food for thought regarding a Kerry-Dean ticket. Overall, a Kerry-Dean ticket garnered support from 45 percent compared with 44 percent for Bush-Cheney. In the so-called battleground states, Kerry-Dean beat Bush-Cheney 48-42. The poll defines battleground states as: Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

The old conventional wisdom about a vice presidential candidate concludes that the best pick is the one who can deliver the electoral votes of his or her home state on Election Day. That is what keeps names like retiring Missouri congressman Richard Gephardt and Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack in the mix. Neither excites, and one is virtually unknown beyond the corn belt. Dean's constituency is bigger than a single state. It's a movement synonymous with change and excitement.

But excitement from the left scares the middle. The middle is where Kerry thinks he wants to be in an election that has come to be defined as Bush versus not Bush. It's too bad a party has to lose its heart and soul to put a body in the White House.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com. 

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