WASHINGTON -- Senator John Edwards, the smooth-talking populist who emerged from the nominating campaign as John F. Kerry's chief rival, is favored among registered voters to be the Democratic vice presidential candidate, according to an Associated Press poll.
But his name on the ticket does not automatically boost the Democrats' prospects.
A Kerry-Edwards pairing ties with the GOP tandem of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, which is no better than Kerry's current showing in head-to-head matchups against Bush, according to the AP poll conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs.
Kerry has made overtures to at least one potential candidate, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who rejected the offer to forge a bipartisan alliance against Bush. Two officials familiar with the conversations said Kerry stopped short of formally offering McCain the job, sparing the Massachusetts senator an outright rejection that would make his eventual running mate look like a second choice.
A hypothetical Kerry-McCain ticket had a 14-point advantage over Bush-Cheney among registered voters, 53 percent to 39 percent, according to a recent CBS News poll.
Democratic strategists cautioned against reading too much into any poll before Kerry selects a running mate. "Polling information on potential running mates is soft and unreliable, because it's all about name identification and hypothetical," said Doug Sosnik, a top adviser in the Clinton White House. "Eventually, we'll have a campaign when people will get to know them. Right now, it's just mush."
The AP poll suggested that more than one-third of registered voters, 36 percent, said they would most like to see Kerry choose Edwards.
Among Democrats surveyed, Edwards fared even better: 43 percent preferred him over three other Democrats. The first-term senator from North Carolina remained in the primaries longer than any other major candidate and won over thousands of Democratic voters with the positive tone of his campaign.
The poll indicated that 19 percent of registered voters wanted Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, the longtime Democratic leader who is retiring from the House. Eighteen percent chose retired Army General Wesley K. Clark, a political newcomer from Arkansas, and 4 percent picked Governor Tom Vilsack of Iowa, a relative unknown nationally.
About 23 percent said they were not sure or offered another name.
When Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York was added to the mix, one-fourth of the respondents supported her, while Edwards's backing remained strong at 34 percent. She picked up one-half of the black vote, drawing support from Gephardt, Vilsack, and the "not sure" category. She repeatedly has ruled out accepting the vice presidential nomination; Kerry has not offered it.
Among just Democrats, Gephardt got 19 percent, Clark 18 percent, and Vilsack 4 percent.
None of the potential candidates made much of a difference in a hypothetical matchup against the White House team.
Like Kerry-Edwards, a Kerry-Gephardt ticket tied Bush-Cheney, while pairing Kerry with Vilsack or Clark resulted in a slight lead for Bush-Cheney.
"What this poll shows is that since Edwards ran a very, very competitive Democratic primary and stayed in until the bitter end and by all accounts acquitted himself well, he is favored by Democratic and all American voters," said Doug Schoen, a pollster for Clinton.
Schoen and other political specialists say there is no way to measure the boost or drag a running mate will bring to the ticket.
No one predicted the lift that Senator Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut would give Democrat Al Gore in 2000. No one foresaw the problems Republican Dan Quayle would cause then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Presidential nominees are usually more interested in whether candidates are qualified to serve as president, whether there are political problems in their background, and whether the relationship would have some trust, Sosnik said.
In hypothetical matchups against the GOP ticket:
Kerry-Edwards had 47 percent to 44 percent for Bush-Cheney.
Bush-Cheney had 47 percent to 45 percent for Kerry-Gephardt.
Bush-Cheney had 47 percent to 43 percent for Kerry-Vilsack and for Kerry-Clark.
Kerry is expected to announce his choice next month.
Among others mentioned as potential Kerry running mates are Senators Bob Graham of Florida and Evan Bayh of Indiana.
Democrats say there may be a dark horse under consideration: Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska.
As for the Republican ticket, 28 percent of GOP voters surveyed thought Bush should pick someone other than Cheney as his running mate.
The AP-Ipsos poll of 788 registered voters was conducted June 7-9. The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.