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THOMAS OLIPHANT

McCain's out as No. 2; is Edwards in?

WASHINGTON
NOW THAT the Kerry-McCain caper is apparently history, two points: First, John Kerry tried -- mightily.

Second, McCain couldn't take the leap and still be John McCain. All in all, for the first reasonably serious attempt to forge a unity ticket since the political parties emerged early in the 19th century -- not bad.

I say not bad, especially if Kerry now moves to embrace a broad consensus in his party that Senator John Edwards of North Carolina is the one value-adding vice presidential nominee available. Edwards is no John McCain, but in addition to a host of politically helpful virtues all his own, he's the closest thing.

Shortly after Kerry clinched the Democratic presidential nomination on March 2, I heard chatter about McCain as a possible running mate. At the time, it seemed the major obstacle would be Kerry's concerns about how to deal with worries about such a historic leap from within his own party.

As things turned out, Kerry was prepared to face those concerns squarely.

McCain, however, could not get past the obstacle of himself. At some point, being vice president involves shutting up and going along. For all his independence and fresh thinking, McCain is not a go-along guy. He works across party lines all the time on several important foreign and domestic policy issues, but part of his immense appeal -- and part of what he fervently believes makes him bad vice presidential material -- is that he always speaks his mind. He couldn't suppress that urge even if he wanted to. That's no criticism; it's who he really is.

McCain also had a secondary concern in his contacts with Kerry since March 2. He could not imagine a detailed negotiation about issues, job description, and government appointments that did not end up compromising the power of the presidency. I could imagine an alliance with another figure with less fervently held views -- Colin Powell, for example. It was clear, however, that Kerry would have been negotiating the powers of his office with McCain, and in our system that would not be healthy.

Kerry reached out, which is also healthy. McCain couldn't reach back, and good for him for realizing that. If Kerry is elected, he will find an ally as well as a principled opponent on many vital matters; McCain might even consider running the Defense Department. But that's as far as this should go.

That leaves Edwards. Part of the modern selection ritual is exploring in depth the thoughts of leaders around the country. This spring the ritual produced a broad consensus for the guy whose emergence in Iowa five months ago was as dramatic as Kerry's. Edwards is praised as a New South Southerner, a centrist, a fresh face, a master communicator.

The praise, however, misses something Edwards and Kerry have in common -- the roots of their emergence.

Each understood that voters were prepared to listen to leaders who believed that the time had come to bring the issue of Saddam Hussein's Iraq to a head and to authorize the use of military force but who believed just as strongly that the invasion and its aftermath had been horridly botched.

Even more important, each of them understood that voters did not want to see security issues obscure the host of problems ordinary families are having coping with economic forces that threaten job security, financial health, and quality of life. Kerry and Edwards communicated this understanding town by town; that's why they finished one-two.

Edwards's first outing after the primaries was to the Democratic State Convention in North Dakota. The two Democratic senators in a Republican state, Byron Dorgan and Kent Conrad, were bowled over. One of his most recent outings was to the battleground state of Minnesota; among the converts there was former Vice President Walter Mondale. Just yesterday, two Democratic Senate candidates facing tough but winnable elections in conservative states, Brad Carson of Oklahoma and Chris John of Louisiana, chose Edwards as the draw for a joint fund-raising lunch in Philadelphia.

The pols reinforce the polls -- South in play, conservative parts of battleground states in play (from southern Ohio to northern Minnesota and Wisconsin), as strong or stronger than local favorites on their own turf (including Missouri, Iowa, and above all Florida).

There's an obvious, positive point (excitement) and a negative one (disappointment) if Kerry's decision goes elsewhere.

The hang-up with Edwards for me is not personal chemistry; instead, it's thinking through his role in a Kerry administration. For now, a negative point suffices: No more Dick Cheney. The government works better when the president is the president.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com. 

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