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Playing For Keeps

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John Kerry's selection of John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate tells us something very important about the senator from Massachusetts. Sure, Kerry could have chosen someone with more political experience, someone more steeped in the history, details, and nuances of public policy issues, both foreign and domestic. But no other Democrat could boost Kerry's poll numbers as much as Edwards can. So, what choosing Edwards says about Kerry is that the hockey-playing, Harley-driving windsurfer wants to win.

The competitiveness Kerry showed by picking Edwards brings last December to mind. At the time, Kerry's campaign and his presidential hopes showed no signs of life. No money was flowing in. No momentum was apparent. Many Democrats, including some in Kerry's own camp, thought he ought to drop out of the race. Instead, he took out a $6 million mortgage on his half of his Beacon Hill home and poured the money into his campaign. The guy wanted to win. He had the guts to bet on himself, and it paid off.

History tells us that vice presidential running mates usually don't matter much outside their home states. But in close elections, small things matter a lot. This is likely to be a very close race, so Edwards just might make the difference.

Kerry will almost certainly get a bounce from his vice presidential pick and from the Democratic National Convention, although perhaps not the 15-percentage-point surge that chief Bush campaign strategist Matthew Dowd has predicted. There are hardly any Democrats left to "come home." Kerry already has most of them. Conversely, few Republicans are likely to defect, even temporarily, from President Bush. Any Kerry boost will have to come mostly from the ranks of independents.

Once Bush finishes his convention in early September, he too will almost certainly get a bounce, though incumbent bounces tend to be smaller. Most likely, Bush will simply reclaim a share of the independent voters that Kerry pulled to his side.

While it will be fun to gauge the size of the Kerry-Edwards and Bush-Cheney bounces -- how much the poll numbers move in key states, and how long the spikes last -- the presidential election poll numbers won't mean much until mid-September, when the volatility subsides a bit and the debates are about to begin. In the meantime, Bush's job-approval ratings may provide a clearer indication of which party is likely to win.

Kerry will probably get a popularity bounce in most states in the coming weeks. And we will probably go through a bit of a silly season with some poll results artificially inflating Democrats' prospects. But the illusionary part of Kerry's bounce will likely disappear once the GOP convention takes center stage.

The addition of Edwards to the Democratic ticket will likely put North Carolina into play. Already, much of that state, which gave Bush 56 percent of its vote in 2000, is upset with the Bush administration's trade (textiles and furniture) and tobacco policies. Don't be surprised to see the Bush campaign airing TV commercials in the Tar Heel State as a defensive measure. The president's support was a bit squishy there even before Edwards got the nod.

In the rest of the South, Edwards's name on the Democratic ticket will probably just narrow Bush's victory margin. The Kerry campaign has already wasted $2 million on television advertising in Louisiana, with little to show for it, and winning Arkansas remains an uphill battle for the Democrats. Edwards may help a bit in those states, but probably not enough. Doing well in the rest of the South -- except Florida, which isn't really Southern -- was never more than a pipe dream for the Democrats.

For the Democratic Party, the benefit of Edwards's presence on the ticket is that he projects a moderate, centrist image. He's also a fresh, energetic face and a very strong campaigner. Among swing voters who assume that a Southerner is a moderate, Edwards makes the Democratic ticket somewhat more attractive. (But recall that Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas wasn't much help to then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. And Bentsen was certainly more moderate than Edwards is.)

The bottom line is that Kerry made an interesting, intriguing choice, one that a pollster might have urged but that might make some policy wonks roll their eyes.
 
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