- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 4, 2004

Former trial lawyer John Edwards remains on John Kerry’s vice presidential short list, but concerns increase in the Kerry campaign about the freshman senator’s inexperience, especially on national security.

No one in Mr. Kerry’s high command doubts the North Carolina populist has the political skills to energize the party. But the Massachusetts liberal’s advisers, and Mr. Kerry himself, now wonder if the boyish-looking Mr. Edwards — whose only government experience is his soon-to-expire single six-year term in the U.S. Senate from North Carolina — is ready to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Mr. Kerry has said the most important requirement for his vice president will be his or her qualifications to step into the presidency if necessary. This was the issue that dogged Mr. Edwards throughout his quixotic, unsuccessful run in the Democratic primaries. He was unknown, untested and clearly unqualified to assume the Oval Office and run the country. This is particularly true because of his inexperience in the one area that matters most in an age of terrorism: national security.

“Clearly, Edwards doesn’t have the longest resume on national security,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a defense adviser at the prestigious Brookings Institution and a staunch Kerry supporter. “You could say he did sort of a crash-course to learn national security issues quickly, but he gave meaty speeches about them,” Mr. O’Hanlon told me.

Nevertheless, even Mr. Edwards’ home-state supporters acknowledge his background leaves something to be desired in a vice president, let alone a potential president. In their minds, his strengths lie elsewhere: “Maybe he doesn’t have all these credentials, but at least he’s a fresh face, a highly intelligent person and a fast study for anything,” said North Carolina Democratic Chairman Barbara Allen. This is hardly the ringing endorsement that will convince Mr. Kerry that Mr. Edwards has the right stuff to step into the highest office in the land.

But other Democratic state chairmen I have talked to this past week say they like Mr. Edwards because of his political talents and his Kennedyesque ability to excite the party. “Democrats here would love to see Edwards on the ticket,” Ohio party chairman Denny White told me. “He’d be an asset this fall, particularly in Ohio.”

Surely no one among this year’s presidential contenders has received more favorable — one might say fawning — treatment from the news media. But despite his envious media exposure, Mr. Edwards won only one primary, in South Carolina, plus his home state’s caucus. He came in second in more than a dozen other primaries after most of the other candidates dropped out, but also was a distant third or fourth in many others.

Thus a second look at Mr. Edwards suggests he wasn’t that great a campaigner, nor did he have a well-thought-out, weighty agenda with big ideas. His principal life’s work has been that of a trial lawyer who made millions suing big corporations.

That has Mr. Kerry looking more closely at other candidates on his list, including former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri, Sens. John Breaux of Louisiana and Bob Graham of Florida, former Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska and former Defense Secretary William Cohen, a liberal Republican.

But none of these men excite the party’s liberal base very much. Mr. Breaux is a centrist who worked closely and voted with the Bush White House on its tax-cut plan. Labor bosses favor Mr. Gephardt, but he failed abysmally in the primaries. Mr. Graham literally put people to sleep when he spoke. Mr. Kerrey, who called President Clinton “an unusually good liar,” is known in the party as a “loose cannon.” And Mr. Cohen would go over “like a lead balloon,” one Democratic official told me.

Mr. Kerry is said to be considering several governors, including Iowa Gov. Thomas J. Vilsack. But there is no really big gubernatorial star who can give the ticket the pizzazz it so clearly needs.

Despite his denials, Mr. Kerry was ready to offer the No. 2 spot to Sen. John McCain during a private meeting, but the Arizona Republican flatly turned it down and reiterated his support for President Bush. That Mr. Kerry seriously considered the GOP renegade angered “a lot of Democrats up here,” said a chief aide to a Senate Democratic leader.

Maybe that’s why Democrats last week again floated the idea Mr. Kerry could tap New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. She would certainly bring a lot of star power to the ticket, but she suffers from the same problem as Mr. Edwards: She is a freshman with little hard experience in national security issues. In addition, on domestic issues she is best known for a disastrous health-care reform plan considered so unworkable by House Democrats that they refused to bring it up for a vote.

Hillary Clinton has repeatedly said she would not be a candidate for vice president, and I think she means it. The word from party insiders is that she and husband Bill believe Mr. Kerry will lose in November. Better, they think, to run for president when the office is open — something she fully intends to do in 2008.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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