By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
The party faithful say John Edwards can help win Florida. The pair campaign in St. Petersburg tonight.
His resume is thin. He looks so young he could almost pass for a page instead of a senator. And John Edwards might not even be able to swing his home state to Sen. John Kerry.
But Democrats in Florida and across the country on Tuesday hailed the shot of energy and charisma John Edwards stands to bring to the Democratic presidential campaign.
And Tampa Bay area residents have a chance to see the new John-John ticket up close tonight as the campaign holds a public rally in St. Petersburg.
"I'm jumping for joy," Democratic activist Gerald White of Tampa said soon after news broke Tuesday morning that Kerry had tapped the North Carolina senator. "John Edwards brings the vitality and everything we need. We need to spark the youth in this country, and that's what he can do."
After a closely guarded selection process, Kerry, 60, chose the fresh-faced Southern populist over a number of veteran politicians, including Florida Sen. Bob Graham and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt. Much of the Democratic establishment and base had been rooting for Edwards, who emerged on the presidential trail as a candidate capable of electrifying crowds with his calls to stand up for the middle class and working poor.
"I have chosen a man who understands and defends the values of America," Kerry told an enthusiastic crowd in Pittsburgh Tuesday. "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."
Even in Graham's home state, Democrat after Democrat cheered the choice of 51-year-old Edwards Tuesday. Many suggested he can be as helpful to Kerry in Florida - which boasts 27 electoral votes - as Graham would have been. Polls show a dead heat in Florida.
"Edwards is going to be able to communicate with people in a way that Floridians haven't seen in a very long time - since the old he-coon, Lawton Chiles," said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, chairman of Kerry's Florida campaign. "He definitely plays well in South Florida, he plays really well in Central Florida, and guess what: Here's a candidate who can hold his own in North Florida."
Republicans were dismissive.
"Who is John Edwards?" asked the Republican National Committee in a statement. "A disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal and friend to personal injury trial lawyers."
Gov. Jeb Bush said Edwards "ran a good campaign for president," but noted that National Journal magazine last year ranked him the fourth most liberal senator.
"The fact that he is from the South is totally irrelevant," Bush said. "The people in the South aren't going to vote for a ticket that liberal. My prediction is we'll carry Florida and we'll also carry North Carolina."
At the very least, though, Edwards will force the Bush-Cheney campaign to spend some resources defending North Carolina. The state has voted for Republican presidential candidates consistently for two decades, but a poll for the News & Observer newspaper last month showed Bush leading Kerry by 5 points.
What's more, Democratic strategists see the Edwards choice as a help to Democrats in several open races that could tip control of the U.S. Senate, including North Carolina and South Carolina.
History provides context: Running mates rarely win elections.
Not since Lyndon Johnson enabled John F. Kennedy to win Texas has the vice presidential choice proved to be a decisive factor. More often, the choices prove to be damaging distractions, as Thomas Eagleton's history of depression was for George McGovern in 1992 and Geraldine Ferraro's family finances were for Walter Mondale in 1984.
Running mate choices help flesh out a campaign, and Kerry - a decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime Senate Foreign Relations Committee member - apparently felt his national security credentials needed little bolstering. He turned to a Southern charmer who can counter Kerry's reputation for aloofness, a running mate with an up-from-the-bootstraps biography that contrasts with Kerry's prep school background.
The son of a textile mill worker, Edwards was the first person in his family to attend college. He worked his way through school to became a trial lawyer. He made millions specializing in product liability and medical malpractice cases.
While Republicans have often criticized his profession, Edwards touted his career as a badge of honor that demonstrated his commitment to stand up for average Americans against powerful corporations and insurance companies. He campaigned as a champion for Americans striving for a better life.
"There are two Americas - one for the powerful insiders, and another for everyone else," Edwards often said in the campaign.
The North Carolina senator finished second to Kerry in the Iowa caucuses and competed until March 2. He won only South Carolina and North Carolina, but impressed many people with his positive and charismatic style. In states where Republicans could vote in nominating contests, exit polls showed he consistently fared better than Kerry among those voters.
The rivalry between Kerry and Edwards was mostly free of overt hostility, but Republicans on Tuesday seized on some of the barbs the two Democrats threw.
"In the Senate four years - and that is the full extent of public life - no international experience, no military experience," Kerry said in January. "When I came back from Vietnam in 1969, I don't know if John Edwards was out of diapers."
The Bush-Cheney campaign also immediately sought to portray Edwards as a weak second choice for Kerry. It launched a new TV spot featuring Arizona Sen. John McCain praising Bush. Kerry had approached McCain about joining him in a bipartisan ticket.
Matt Dowd, a senior strategist on the Bush campaign, also sent a memo to Republicans warning them to expect a "bounce" for Kerry with the vice presidential choice. After the Democratic National Convention, he predicted polls could show the race swinging "wildly to his favor by early August."
Perhaps the most crucial test for Edwards will come when he faces off against Vice President Dick Cheney in a debate: Can a smooth trial lawyer with limited government experience compete against a far less charismatic vice president with a wealth of experience and knowledge?
Michael McKenna, a Republican pollster who worked for the senator Edwards unseated in 1998, doesn't see Edwards adding much to the ticket. But he said no one should underestimate Edwards' debating skills.
"He's spent his life in front of a jury. He completely grasps that sometimes the facts are less important than how you communicate them," McKenna said.
- Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or email@example.comIF YOU GO
WHERE: Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N, St. Petersburg.
WHEN: Organizers encourage you to arrive by 7:30 p.m., although the candidates aren't expected until two hours later.