Bush, Kerry camps spar over Edwards' readiness


NEW YORK - During his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. John Edwards loved to tell voters, "I am so ready for this fight."

And as Sen. John Kerry blitzes through battleground states this week, praising Edwards as his new vice presidential pick, he is assuring crowds that the fresh-faced North Carolinian is "ready for this job." But Edwards' thin resume - especially his limited experience in foreign policy and national security - has given Republicans an opportunity to argue that the first-term senator is unqualified for the job he is seeking.

Armed with a thick dossier of anti-Edwards facts and figures compiled during the Democratic primaries, Republicans wasted no time this week in labeling Edwards, 51, "unaccomplished." President Bush followed up with a curt swipe, saying the difference between Edwards and Vice President Dick Cheney is that "Dick Cheney can be president."

Bush, whose efforts to cast himself as a bold wartime leader are central to his re-election bid, seeks to convince voters that Edwards is not ready for the top job. The president wants to spread the message that in a post-Sept. 11 world, voters can ill afford to elect a ticket whose No. 2 is a relative newcomer.

The Kerry campaign counters that Edwards has plenty of experience on vital issues, including three years on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a career of helping ordinary people as a trial lawyer. In fact, they argue, Edwards is better equipped to be president than Bush was when he ran in 2000 as a second-term governor. Kerry said as much at a campaign stop this week and on CNN's Larry King Live last night.

"I've picked somebody with the character, with the judgment, with the values to be able to take over as president, lead this nation, if something were to happen to me," Kerry said in the interview with King. "This is a man who represents the values of our country, and this is a man strong enough and skilled enough to lead it."

By pointing to what they say were Bush's shortcomings at the time of the 2000 election, Kerry and Democrats are reminding voters that Bush tapped Cheney - a former defense secretary who had served a decade in Congress - as his running mate in large part to compensate for his gap in experience. Kerry went so far as to assert that Bush has ceded authority to Cheney since taking office.

The effort to label Edwards a novice who is ill prepared for a national ticket fits a broader Republican strategy to paint Kerry as an opportunistic and untrustworthy candidate.

Republicans charge that the choice of Edwards, whom Kerry had criticized during the Democratic primary season as lacking experience - even snidely suggesting that Edwards wasn't "out of diapers" when Kerry returned heroically from Vietnam - shows that Kerry is driven by cold, political calculations.

"The American public is going to take into consideration the fact that John Kerry made his decision in terms of political expediency rather than expertise and experience," said Kevin Madden, a spokesman for Bush's re-election campaign. "He made it to close the charisma gap."

Whether or not Bush lacked seasoning on foreign policy and defense issues when he ran for president, Madden said, what matters is that he has the experience now.

Bush "has a proven record, and John Edwards doesn't," Madden said.

As they defend Edwards' record against Republican attacks, Democrats have handled the criticism of his background with a measure of satisfaction, saying the swift efforts to discredit Edwards prove that Republicans see him as a potent threat.

A swing through battleground states to showcase the new Democratic pairing took the campaign to Florida yesterday, then to a star-studded concert here at Radio City Music Hall that raked in a whopping $7 million for the Kerry campaign.

At the concert, the comedian Chevy Chase joked that Edwards is "smart enough and experienced enough to make Dick Cheney come off about as bright as a bundt cake."

Whoopi Goldberg repeatedly referred to Edwards in her comedy routine as "the kid," saying, "He looks like he's about 18. I'm going to have to card [him]."

Aides continued to shield the North Carolina senator from reporters' questions, declining to make him available for what would inevitably be inquiries about whether he is fit to serve.

"He's clearly got a grasp of these issues," said Mark Kornblau, an Edwards spokesman. He listed the candidate's service on the intelligence panel, work on biological and chemical security initiatives, and his call to better control the spread of "loose nukes" - unsecured nuclear material that could fall into the hands of terrorists - as signs of Edwards' substantive work on defense and foreign policy.

"The experience we should look at is, this administration has actually been in office since 9/11 and has taken us in the wrong direction," Kornblau said.

Edwards, a former trial lawyer who won election to the Senate in 1998, is no stranger to accusations of being an upstart with more style than substance. He has compiled few legislative achievements during his brief time in Congress, and is known for his work on such measures as an unsuccessful bill to broaden patients' rights to sue HMOs.

He won virtually instant national exposure not for policy work but for his role as a highly articulate defender of Bill Clinton during impeachment proceedings.

A youthful and vigorous figure in a chamber full of older, more staid senators, Edwards made no secret of his driving ambition upon arriving in Washington. Few there were surprised when Edwards, after just a year in public office, was mentioned as vice presidential material during Al Gore's 2000 search for a running mate.

His fast rise and physical appeal made him an alluring target for Republicans, who last year affixed the belittling label "the Breck girl" to try to paint him as a mere showhorse in the presidential campaign. Those efforts are intensifying now that Edwards has been tapped for the No. 2 Democratic slot and will likely persist as Republicans seek to throw their opponents off their game.

Edwards, who showed himself to be a highly disciplined campaigner during the primaries, faces the challenge of projecting a competent, confident face while guarding against embarrassing public errors that could reinforce the charge that he is not presidential material, and reflect poorly on Kerry.

Yet if he appears too careful, campaign observers said, Edwards risks squandering the most valuable asset he brings to the ticket: the sparkle and folksy eloquence that appeals to many voters.

"There's going to be extra pressure on [Edwards] - he's not going to be able to make a mistake," said Ferrel Guillory, the director of the program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "He's got to stay nimble, he's got to stay charming, charismatic and bouncy. ... He can't look cautious, but he's got to be cautious."

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