Monday, April 12, 2004

Democratic leaders are advising Sen. John Kerry to take great care in picking his running mate and select someone who neutralizes his Northeast liberal reputation and doesn’t eclipse him in the charm department.

The most commonly discussed list of potential running mates is an array of governors and senators from all corners of the country. Sharing the general sentiment held by many Democrats, Mr. Kerry’s campaign acknowledges: It’s a crucial decision.

“It’s his first major decision, and it does say a lot,” said Democratic strategist Chris Cooper of Malchow, Schlackman, Hoppy & Cooper. “The first rule is do no harm.”

Although several state party leaders said they have regional or other biases about whom Mr. Kerry should pick, many also said Mr. Kerry should try losing the “liberal” label and the deep insider image that comes with a 19-year Senate record.

“He needs to pick somebody from outside Washington who can bring a less-partisan profile to the table,” Mr. Cooper said. “Washington is just viewed as this partisan mud pit where people are too busy hollering at one another to get anything done.”

Brad Crone, a Democratic consultant in North Carolina, said Mr. Kerry’s biggest obstacle in Republican-leaning North Carolina and elsewhere is the image that he’s “an old-line liberal Democrat.”

Many Democratic primary voters acknowledged voting for Mr. Kerry with the hope that he’d pick Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate, whose limited voting record will help portray him as a moderate.

“If Edwards is on the ticket, North Carolina will be in play,” Mr. Crone said. “It will force Bush to go into North Carolina and campaign.”

Polling during the primary showed that Mr. Edwards, a successful personal-injury lawyer, appealed to independents and blacks, who can play a key role in battleground states with narrow margins such as Florida, Ohio and Missouri.

“The caveat for Kerry,” Mr. Crone warned, “is that Edwards has the ability to upstage him. Edwards has the ability to become the story over Kerry.”

Which is why, several Capitol Hill insiders say, Mr. Kerry is cool to the idea of picking Mr. Edwards, even though the first-term senator and many Senate colleagues are lobbying for him.

That would not be the problem if he picked former Army Gen. Wesley Clark, said Arkansas Democratic Party Chairman Ron Oliver.

“I don’t really think he would outshine Kerry,” he said. “They would bring different strengths to the ticket. They would complement each other a lot.”

Mr. Oliver said Mr. Clark’s military record would help Democrats burnish their chronic image problem with national defense.

“I can’t remember a time when a ticket had more military experience than that one would have,” he said. “It would really take that issue off the table.”

In Missouri, another state that could determine the outcome of the election, Democrats are urging Mr. Kerry to consider a more tactical strategy by picking Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the longtime Missouri congressman who bowed out of the primary after a poor showing in Iowa.

By picking Mr. Gephardt, they say Mr. Kerry could pick up voter-rich Missouri, and with Mr. Gephardt’s deep ties to organized labor in the Midwest, possibly could tip the scales in states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

“He has three decades of strong leadership in the Midwest,” said Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jim Gardner.

He also listed Mr. Edwards and Gov. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Democrat who often is touted as a running mate, as other contenders who would help Mr. Kerry play well in Missouri and the Midwest.

In the South, Mr. Kerry faces a particularly stiff head wind. It was in South Carolina that Mr. Edwards dealt Mr. Kerry his first — and one of only two — primary defeats.

Nu Wexler, director of the South Carolina Democratic Party, sees the South as crucial to Democratic hopes of winning the White House.

“There’s an enormous cultural divide between the red states and the blue states, and Sen. Kerry would be well-served to pick someone who understands the difference between them,” he said.

Mr. Wexler added: “Our entire state legislature … would love to see someone on the ticket who speaks in a Southern accent and can talk about trade, jobs and rural issues.”

Mr. Kerry’s search is being led by longtime Kerry friend and Washington power broker James A. Johnson, who chaired the 1984 presidential campaign committee for former Vice President Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota.

Though his campaign refuses to speculate on any time frame for picking someone, the decision is expected to be made public in early summer.

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