RALEIGH, N.C. — RALEIGH, N.C. - President Bush swept onto Sen. John Edwards' home turf yesterday, tersely dismissing the freshman senator's fitness to be president, rebuking him for blocking Bush's conservative judicial nominees and banking $2.35 million at a campaign fund-raiser - all in a few short hours.
Bush's first visit to the Tar Heel State in three years came the day after Sen. John Kerry announced his selection of Edwards as his running mate. The president wasted no time summing up his thoughts about Edwards' credentials.
When a reporter pointed out that the North Carolina senator has been described as "charming, engaging, a nimble campaigner, a populist and even sexy" and then asked the president how Edwards stacks up against Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush issued a curt reply: "Dick Cheney can be president. Next?"
Bush's remarks came after a meeting with three of his judicial nominees who face opposition in the Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Edwards is a member. After a fund-raising luncheon at the home of Cliff Benson, a businessman and campaign donor, the president stopped to sample lemonade at a child's sidewalk stand. Supporters waved Bush-Cheney '04 signs in the shade of the hot afternoon.
The day after Kerry's announcement of his vice presidential choice, people in Edwards' home state offered feelings ranging from pride and full-throated enthusiasm to wariness and outright opposition.
'Anybody but Bush'
Not far from the Bush fund-raiser, behind crowd-control fences, a few dozen protesters waved banners, backing Edwards and opposing the Iraq war - signs of Democratic support in a state long seen as a Republican stronghold.
"I was a registered Republican until a few months ago," said Alice Leach, a 57-year-old graphic artist who brandished an anti-Bush poster at passing traffic. "For me, it's become an 'anybody but Bush' situation, even though I am happy about Edwards coming on."
Throughout the Raleigh-Durham area, people had their freshman senator in mind yesterday. A South Carolina native, Edwards grew up in a working-class family in Robbins, a mill town equidistant from the Outer Banks and the Tennessee line.
'He's a good example'
"I'm excited," said John Munson, owner of the Rialto, a 1940s-era movie house in Raleigh.
"I think North Carolina is a good example of the New South, and he's a good example of the New South," Munson said. "This gives the rest of the country a chance to see what that means."
Business has been good at the theater the past few weeks - since it began screening Fahrenheit 9/11, the vehemently anti-Bush movie, to packed houses.
Down the street, Stacy DeCoster, a North Carolina State University sociology professor, graded exams at the 3rd Place coffeehouse. A Wisconsin transplant, DeCoster said she saw the selection of Edwards less as a point of regional pride than as a shrewd move by Kerry.
"Kerry is better with war issues and veterans and foreign affairs, and Edwards is strong on the domestic issues that are important," DeCoster said. "They complement each other."
Still up in the air
Inside NOFO at the Pig, a Raleigh restaurant packed with independent-minded voters, conversation turned to Edwards. Blending smoothies behind the counter, Leno Lopez remained uncommitted.
"Just because he's from North Carolina is no reason to vote for him," Lopez said.
Nikki Mercer said she was intrigued by what a Kerry-Edwards ticket might be able to achieve in office, though she was holding off on a decision: "I really want to hear what both parties consider to be their priorities, their bottom lines."
Like some others, Mercer expressed suspicion about how Bush's arrival here coincided with Edwards' ascension to the Democratic ticket. Since Jimmy Carter won the state in 1976, North Carolina has been little more than an afterthought in presidential races, as predictably Republican as Maryland is Democratic.
But Bush's North Carolina stop had been planned weeks ago. In a Raleigh News & Observer poll conducted from June 13 to 16, 47 percent of the sampled voters said they would support Bush if the election were held then, giving him a 5 point lead over Kerry.
"With Edwards in play, obviously now the president has to pay attention to North Carolina," said Bill Cobey, a Republican contender in a race to unseat Gov. Michael F. Easley, a Democrat. "It may even make it marginally closer, but nobody'll say the Democrats will win here in November."
Certainly not Bush. "I did well here in 2000 because the North Carolinian voter understood we shared values," Bush said. "People in North Carolina remember I came to this state and said, 'We'll make sure our troops are well-paid and well-housed and taken care of,' and we've done that. I told them we'd cut their taxes, and we've done that.
"I also know that when they go to the polls to vote for president, that they'll understand the senator from Massachusetts doesn't share their values."
Michael Munger, a political scientist at Duke University, said that decades of Republican domination in the state were unlikely to be reversed by the presence of a North Carolinian on a Democratic ticket.
"Kerry's still going to lose North Carolina, but in North Carolina, Georgia and maybe Louisiana, Republicans are going to have to spend money defending their positions - and that's something new," he said.
The selection of Edwards, Munger said, "helps twice: in the big, heavily populated Rust Belt states because his message works well and comes across as authentic, and because Republicans have to defend against him in the South."
It's been more than five years since Edwards left his personal-injury law firm, when Edwards & Kirby became Kirby & Holt. But his office tells a different story.
Inside a suite along busy Glenwood Avenue, Edwards' former partner, David F. Kirby, leads a reporter on a quick tour. The bright room is cluttered with boxes, family snapshots and trophies for coaching soccer - all belonging to Edwards.
On one wall, the headline on a framed copy of a local newspaper article from 1994 dubs Edwards the "Avenging Angel of Plaintiffs." There is a photo of Valerie Lakey, a child he represented in a successful multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
"Don't call it a shrine," Kirby said sheepishly. "We use it as a war room, a staging room for trial preparation."
Kirby said he thought Edwards has everything necessary to serve in the White House.
"John is very tough, and he has all the mettle that it takes to serve as vice president," he said. "He used to win in court because he showed extremely good judgment, and he was always on the right side of an issue."