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Edwards gets Kerry's vote

PITTSBURGH — PITTSBURGH - Sen. John Kerry tapped Sen. John Edwards, the folksy North Carolinian who fought him unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination, to be his vice-presidential running mate yesterday, saying the first-term senator and wealthy former trial lawyer is "ready for this job."

Kerry selected Edwards - whose broad grin, populist themes and positive campaigning style made him a popular rival to the more reserved Kerry during the primary season - after a vetting process conducted in painstaking secrecy.

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The announcement comes three weeks before the Democratic convention, as Kerry and Edwards begin introducing themselves to voters around the country. Timed to give Kerry's campaign a spark of energy and attention, the announcement kicked off a convention buildup that aides hope will fuel excitement about the newly minted team and boost Kerry's standing in opinion polls that show him in a tight race with President Bush.

At a rally here yesterday, a crowd cheered Kerry's announcement, waving "Kerry-Edwards" signs and standing before a banner that read "Kerry-Edwards: A stronger America." Insistent that news of his choice not leak before he was ready, Kerry waited until early yesterday to phone Edwards to tell him and made the announcement while Edwards was still in Washington.

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"I have chosen a man who understands and defends the values of America; a man who has shown courage and conviction as a champion for middle-class Americans, and for those struggling to reach the middle class; a man who has shown guts and determination and political skill in his own race for the presidency of the United States; a man whose life has prepared him for leadership, and whose character brings him to exercise it," Kerry said.

Southern appeal

In Edwards, a handsome 51- year-old with little foreign policy experience but plenty of homespun charm, Kerry picked a Southerner who could appeal to voters in his native region and in the Midwest.

The son of mill workers who became a wealthy trial lawyer, Edwards provides a vivid contrast with Kerry, the Yale-educated son of a diplomat whom some voters find aloof.

Edwards was chosen over others Kerry had considered, including the more experienced Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, another primary rival, who has close ties to organized labor. Others mentioned as possible running mates were Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa.

Once he was ready to announce his selection, Kerry sent an e-mail to supporters registered at his Web site, giving them the news.

Kerry had told senior aides of his choice Monday night. He did so after he had called the company that would apply the decal bearing Edwards' name to the Boeing 757 that serves as Kerry's campaign plane.

The plane sat in a Pittsburgh hangar Monday night under the constant watch of a campaign aide, with Edwards' name covered with a tarpaulin. Vendors of Kerry-Edwards signs and T-shirts had to sign nondisclosure agreements, aides said.

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Still, Edwards was hardly a surprise pick. He had campaigned and raised money aggressively for Kerry since ending his own presidential bid in early March, having won only one primary state: his native South Carolina. Edwards had made little secret of his desire for the post. And several Edwards aides have joined the Kerry team.

Republicans began a full-scale offensive against Edwards virtually the moment he was picked. The party launched a Web site devoted to criticizing Edwards as a "disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers."

The Republicans released a report picking apart Edwards' voting record - including votes against Bush's tax cuts, for some defense cuts, in support of a tougher hate-crimes bill and against a ban on a late-term procedure its opponents call "partial birth abortion."

Bush's re-election campaign sought to discredit Edwards - first by suggesting he was not Kerry's first choice; and second, by calling attention to his lack of foreign policy experience.

The Bush campaign launched a TV ad featuring Sen. John McCain, a maverick Republican and former Bush rival who is wildly popular with independent voters, titled "First Choice" - an allusion to Kerry's unsuccessful overtures to McCain about joining the Democratic ticket.

Bush "has not wavered," McCain is shown saying in the ad, from a recent campaign appearance. "He has not flinched from the hard choices. He was determined, and remains determined, to make this world a better, safer, freer place." The presence in the ad of McCain, like Kerry a decorated Vietnam War hero, calls attention to Edwards' lack of experience in military policy and foreign affairs.

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Kerry has highlighted his past as a decorated veteran and had argued during the Democratic primaries that Edwards' inexperience made him a poor candidate. In January, Kerry went so far as to ridicule him, saying: "In the Senate four years - and that is the full extent of public life - no international experience, no military experience. When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers."

But Kerry's selection of Edwards suggests that the campaign believes the North Carolinian's charisma and populist message can help the ticket. Polls showed Democrats around the nation favored Edwards over other potential running mates.

The Kerry team

Kerry's campaign hit back at Bush with its own new ad, titled "New Team," that suggests that Kerry and Edwards complement each other well - one a combat veteran with 30 years' political experience, the other with working-class roots who stands up for "ordinary people." The goal of the spot, said Kerry's campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, is "introducing the country to the energetic, experienced team who will lead an America that is stronger at home and respected in the world."

Last night the running mates sat down with their families for dinner at the mansion Kerry shares here with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, heiress to the Pittsburgh-based Heinz foods fortune. Earlier, Edward received congratulatory phone calls from Democrats and from Vice President Dick Cheney. An Edwards aide described Cheney's message as, "It sounds like Senator Kerry has a great deal of confidence in you, and I look forward to a spirited debate."

Bush said he welcomed Edwards to the contest. "I look forward to a good, spirited contest," the president said.

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Kerry and Edwards will set out today on a trip that's scheduled to take them to rallies over the next three days in the battleground states of Ohio, Florida, West Virginia and New Mexico, as well as to a celebrity concert in New York City. They are expected to arrive in North Carolina on Saturday for a homecoming in Edwards' home state.

"This is a time for John Kerry and John Edwards to travel the country with their families and share their vision with the American people," said David Wade, a Kerry spokesman. Voters, Wade said, "are tired of the drive-by negative advertising that's marked George Bush's full-scale sprint away from his record of the last four years."

Edwards won over many Democratic voters and surpassed strategists' expectations earlier this year with his campaign message of what he called the "two Americas" created by Bush - one for the privileged, and one for everybody else.

Kerry picked up that theme here yesterday, saying the class divide "is at the center of this campaign. And I am so proud that together, John Edwards and I are now going to build one America for all Americans."

He described his choice as someone who "has shown courage and conviction, as a champion for middle-class Americans" and as someone who could help the Democratic ticket reach across party lines.


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