The vice presidential dance has begun

Wesley Clark has gravitas and charm but seems like a closet Republican. John Edwards is bright and articulate and really, really youthful. Who'd be the best V.P.?

By Josh Benson

Published February 7, 2004 1:01AM (EST)

With John Edwards fresh off a resounding triumph in his birth state of South Carolina, and Wesley Clark winning in Oklahoma, both men are moving into a prime position to grab the Democratic nomination -- for vice president.

Neither candidate has given up on the race yet, and both have stated adamantly, vehemently and unequivocally that theyre not interested in the second spot. But unless either of them turns the race around dramatically by beating John Kerry outside the South, the VP question is destinys calling card.

Kerry is ascendant now, having won in seven of nine states so far and likely heading toward a big win this weekend in Michigan and perhaps in Washington as well. But the conventional wisdom on Kerry is that he'll be vulnerable to a "Massachusetts liberal" line of attack in the general election, when Bush's supporters will do their best to make him personally answerable for gay marriage, Willie Horton's furlough and Chappaquiddick. Having Edwards or Clark on the ticket, the thinking goes, could complicate such efforts to caricature the nominee.

Obviously, assessing the vice presidential field in early February, with the convention more than five months away, is a highly speculative exercise. Kerry is still a way from nailing down the nomination. And, of course, there is an entire universe of Democratic names -- governors and former governors like Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Tom Vilsack of Iowa and Janet Napolitano of Arizona, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, along with other presidential contenders like Dick Gephardt or Bob Graham -- who might as easily end up in the No. 2 spot.

But in ways so obscure that they are almost subliminal, the VP courtship dance has already begun.

John Kerry is no doubt still focused on the primary contests ahead. But it's certain that a very smart man or woman in his campaign is already giving a great deal of thought to the issue of which person could most help their man beat George W. Bush. The right running mate could broaden Kerry's geographic appeal, soften his starchy image, help him with outreach to minority voters, help him raise money or, ideally, all of those things.

"There's only one thing that matters," said Robert Zimmerman, a major fundraiser and DNC committeeman who is supporting Kerry. "And that's who can deliver what."

Each in their own way, Edwards and Clark offer stylistic and geographic counterbalances to the front-runner. Kerry is a Yankee; Clark and Edwards both hail from the South. Kerry is an aristocrat; Clark came up through the Army and Edwards is the son of a mill worker. That's the good news.

But the two potential veeps also have weaknesses. Edwards made his millions as an aggressively litigious trial lawyer. He's served less than one term in the U.S. Senate. And he's got an earnest Boy Scout quality that might not contrast well in a debate with Dick Cheney, who exudes experience. Clark might be a better debate opponent, and his foreign affairs and national security experience is superior. But he's still somewhat unsteady as a political candidate. And he's effusively praised the leadership of the president he's running to replace.

For now, the strongest argument in favor of any one candidate is his ability to attract support for his own presidential bid. Again, that's a close call. Clark narrowly won Oklahoma on Tuesday; he placed second in North Dakota, New Mexico and Arizona. But Edwards has arguably done better. He won South Carolina, placed second in Missouri and Iowa. In all, he's won more than a quarter of the votes cast so far.

"When I talk to Democrats across the country about this, John Edwards is the person who's mentioned most," said Rep. Marty Meehan (D-Mass.), a Kerry ally. "He's done a great job in this campaign and he communicates well with people. And he and Sen. Kerry have a good relationship."

Edwards is commonly cited as an attractive running mate because of the regional balance that he, the folksy Carolinian, would be able to provide Kerry, the Boston Brahmin. But the idea of regional balance is increasingly antiquated, as the successful Clinton-Gore (Arkansas-Tennessee) and Bush-Cheney (Texas-Texas/Wyoming) tickets prove. With voters in different parts of the country getting their news from the same national sources, that trend is only accelerating.

"It couldn't hurt that Edwards is a Southerner, but I don't think that delivers anything by itself these days," said James Chace, a professor of government at Bard College and the author of a forthcoming book on the election of 1912. "Everyone is watching the same thing across the country, so you look to pick someone with a national reputation."

It might turn out to be a more important consideration that Edwards can provide a stylistic balance: His rise over the last few weeks was due to interest inspired by his almost unapologetic optimism, youthful appearance, and his outsider (sort of) status, all things that Kerry decidedly doesn't have.

"Kerry has seemed to be of the old guard -- a conventional liberal senator," said Chace. "I think Edwards, who can come across as an outsider, could have a lot to offer him."

The other thing that makes Edwards such a logical choice is that he has run a nice guy's campaign, often passing up obvious opportunities to criticize Kerry. The most recent glaring example of this was at a debate last week in Columbia, S.C. Edwards was asked what he thought of comments Kerry had made about Democrats not needing to win in the South during the general election. Although he has made his own ability to win Southern votes a central theme in his campaign, Edwards refused to take the bait.

"He was given a chance to attack Kerry on the South -- his issue -- and he took a pass," said Democratic consultant Mattis Goldman.

The result of the nice-guy campaign, other than maintaining good relations with Kerry, has been that Edwards has turned himself into a pollster's dream and a potentially valuable asset on a national ticket. "Edwards has emerged from this entire process with a very heavy favorable rating," said pollster John Zogby. "That's the best news if I'm sitting in a meeting picking a running mate."

Given all that, it should come as no surprise that the Kerry camp is rumored to be laying the groundwork for a partnership with Edwards, even as they maintain a public line that they're still in a fight for the nomination and are "taking nothing for granted." Kerry's wife, Teresa, and stepson Chris have already talked privately about their preference for Edwards, according to one Kerry ally who discussed it with them, and Teresa has a particular affinity for Edwards' wife, Elizabeth. In addition, talk from the Kerry camp about Edwards is almost invariably positive, stressing the personal relationship between the senators and their compatibility on the issues.

There's even been talk of deliberate machinations by the Kerry camp to boost Edwards through the primaries to make him more of an asset on the ticket. MSNBC, reporting on the night of Feb. 3 from Kerry headquarters, passed on a suggestion that "the Kerry camp intentionally pulled back in South Carolina ... because they wanted Edwards to win by a significant enough margin that he might appear to be a national candidate."

Edwards, of course, is still in the race to win, and has issued the requisite denials -- again and again -- of any interest in becoming vice president.

Here, from a recent appearance on NBC's "Today" show, is a conversation he had with host Matt Lauer.

Lauer: Would you consider being a vice presidential candidate?

Edwards: No.

Lauer: No, final?

Edwards: No. Final.

It was a refreshingly straightforward, hedge-free denial. But how many media heavyweights believe him? According to "The Note," ABC's political Web page: exactly zero.

It's more likely that other considerations will weigh against Edwards' getting on the ticket. Any argument against him will include his being a senator: A Kerry-Edwards ticket would be the first to feature two members of Congress since John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1960. Or his career as a trial lawyer, not one of the most popular professions in the country.

The case for Clark as vice president is somewhat more complicated. He's a decorated war hero, a retired four-star general and the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO -- those are handy attributes going into an election in which security will be a major issue. A Kerry-Clark ticket would fulfill a certain liberal fantasy of a lefty-hawk ticket to break the Republican election-time dominance of security issues. "Kerry is clearly going to use themes of security and defense," said David Bositis, analyst with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. "If he picked Clark it would further emphasize that and challenge Bush in his strongest area."

Because of that possibility, Clark is still a decent bet to wind up in the mix of vice presidential choices. "I would put Clark on a short list," Meehan said.

But in the past five weeks, the Democratic race has turned upside down, and that's hurt Clark, weakened the rationale for his candidacy. When he came into the contest last September, the front-runner was Howard Dean. Clark instantly gained credibility and popularity because he seemed like the perfect antidote to the former Vermont governor, whose glaring weakness was a lack of experience dealing with matters of national security.

At the same time as he was pitching himself as the stop-Dean candidate, he also seemed like an obvious choice to run as Dean's running mate, lending instant military credibility to a small-state governor with no foreign policy experience. Dean supporters were euphoric about the possibility.

But Clark skipped the Iowa race, and Kerry's win there changed everything. Kerry became what Clark had hoped to be, the Dean alternative with strong national security credibility. Clark instantly tanked in the polls in New Hampshire, where he had been in second place and climbing. And just as his campaign has slowed after showing such great promise, so has his vice presidential star dimmed as it becomes less and less likely that Dean will be the nominee.

Another practical question about Clark would be whether he's a good enough candidate. Though he prides himself on not being a "politician," Clark's difficulties in answering basic questions about his policy positions and priorities -- starting with a disastrous interview on the second day of his campaign in which he muddled his antiwar message -- isn't a good quality for a running mate. He's improved since then, but he still sometimes comes across on the stump and on television as unsure, bearing little resemblance to the confident war analyst he was on CNN last year.

"As a revered commentator on a subject on which he was an unquestioned authority, he was treated differently," said Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and a former speechwriter for Walter Mondale. "But when you are a presidential candidate, you're thrown into the sort of grotesque reality show our campaign has become. It's a game of 'gotcha' with your opponents and with the press, and if you don't enjoy and relish that game, you can come across as not engaging."

Clark has been further hurt by the perception in some quarters that he's a Republican in Democrats' clothing. He admitted to voting for Nixon and Reagan, and was quoted as recently as 2002 effusively praising the Bush leadership team for its handling of the war on terror after Sept. 11.

"Clark can't happen," Zogby said flatly.

Oh, and Clark's campaign says he has no interest whatsoever in being vice president. "If he doesn't become president, he's going to go back to his life," said communications director Matt Bennett. "It just never comes up, except when other people bring it up with us."

But then, maybe that's just politics. David Doak, the veteran Democratic consultant, has this to say about that dynamic: "You know what they say about the vice presidency -- it's like the last cookie on the plate. Everybody swears they don't want it but next thing you know it's gone."

Bush supporters are closely watching to see what unfolds and seem to have a plan for whoever emerges. Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant, thinks that neither Clark nor Edwards would help Kerry deflect an attack that will paint him as a wimpy Massachusetts liberal. "He's Mike Dukakis with a better suit and better hair," said Wilson, who helped engineer the 2002 campaign that defeated Georgia senator and Vietnam war hero Max Cleland on the grounds that he was weak on national security. "I know he's a veteran and was brave in combat, but none of that -- and certainly not his running mate -- is going to save him from his liberal record."

Wilson's prediction: Edwards will end up being the choice. "The Kerry people will like Edwards better," he said. "Clark just strikes me as too icy and kind of freaky. Edwards has got that trial lawyer empathetic I-feel-your-pain thing. And the Southern aspect of his candidacy can't hurt, although I don't think at the end of the day he's going to be able to out-Southern George W. Bush."

Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie read from the same playbook recently -- or at least the part about not being able to beat Bush -- when he told reporters in Edwards' home state of North Carolina: "I don't believe that John Edwards on the ticket makes it any more likely for Democrats to carry this state in 2004 than it was for Al Gore to carry Tennessee in 2000."

In any event, it might seem unlikely that any running mate could make the difference for Kerry. But remember how close the Gore-Bush race was in 2000? "Generally they say that a vice presidential nominee doesn't impact the race more than 1 percent," said Zogby. "Well, 1 percent is huge these days. We're going to be counting in tenths of a percent in many of these states. We're going to be looking at things in this election that move by the hundreds and thousands [of votes]."

Of course, like so much of the other speculation that has gone on throughout this primary season, the discussion about who's actually going to fill that vice presidential slot might mean nothing at all. As supporters of Edwards, Clark and Dean will point out, all of Kerry's successes so far have won him only a small fraction of the delegates needed to wrap the contest up. Edwards and Clark each see a chance of emerging from the Feb. 10 primaries in Virginia and Tennessee as strong alternatives to Kerry, and Dean is hoping to prolong his campaign with a win in Wisconsin on Feb. 17.

That's why Kerry's campaign will not discuss vice presidential politics on the record: The race isn't over, and if his near-fatal fall from front-runner status in 2003 didn't serve as a lesson against premature presumptuousness, nothing will.

"My feeling is this thing has a few twists and turns left," warns Doak, who thinks that Edwards in particular still has a chance of making a run.

If Kerry does end up with the nomination, there's also the chance he might choose a running mate who hasn't been widely considered, someone with some of the positive Clark and Edwards attributes but fewer of their negatives. Among the "outsiders" he could pick are Graham and Gephardt, who are thought to be able to deliver a key state like Florida or a swing region in the Midwest. He could also run with a Democratic governor, although the talent pool there has dried up somewhat in recent years.

Ultimately, though, the choice is most likely to come down to the most basic considerations. Said Meehan: "My own sense is that making a splash would not be as important to Sen. Kerry as having someone who'd be prepared to be president and form a partnership to work together through a very difficult campaign."

Editor's note: This story has been corrected since its original publication.

Josh Benson

Josh Benson is Salon's national correspondent.

MORE FROM Josh Benson

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Dick Cheney John Edwards John F. Kerry