Trail Mix: Campaign Paragon

It's hard to put your finger on the precise moment. It could be when he steps to the front of the stage, raises his arms in the air and simply basks in the cheers of thousands of adoring fans. Or it could be when he stops in his tracks, shrugs his shoulders and modestly tells the crowd they don't really need to listen to him talking about their lives. But by the time John Edwards reaches the climax of his new stump speech, the realization dawns. The senator who just joined the Democratic ticket is not just good. He's the Stepford Veep.

Somewhere along the way, the redneck son of a mill worker from rural North Carolina morphed into an almost-perfect candidate. Someone streamlined the senator, overhauled every physical flaw and created a paragon of presidential campaigners. And like Stepford itself, the America that Edwards dreams of is a place where there's no crime, no poverty and no pushing. That place, of course, just happens to be John Kerry's America. "We believe, the two of us, in our hearts, to our core, that tomorrow will be better than today," Edwards says, winding up to his grand finale. "That in America, if we put our minds to it, if we are willing to work for it, anything is possible."

It's as if Edwards's main message is his positivity. He loves the crowd, and the crowd loves him. He smiles at the crowd, and they smile at him. He speaks to the crowd, and they speak to him. As he nears his introduction of Kerry (delivered with atomic timing in every stump speech), he becomes almost unbearably upbeat, a near-parody of optimistic campaigning. "I'll tell you something that's going to happen in this campaign--it'll be a wonderful thing for America--between now and November: the American people are going to reject the tired, old, hateful negative politics of the past," he explains. "And instead the American people are going to embrace the politics of hope. The politics of what's possible. Because this is America, where everything is possible ... I give you the man who represents hope. Hope for you, hope for me, hope for our children, hope for your children, hope for the future of America!" Bill Clinton may have been the boy from Hope, but John Edwards has bought the whole town of Hope and is shipping it brick by brick to the Democratic convention in Boston.

This kind of campaigning is infectious, and John Kerry seems to have caught the bug. Where the senator used to punch his fists toward the crowd, he has now adopted Edwards's favorite gesture: the thumbs up. Kerry hasn't quite jumped to the double thumbs up--an "Ebert & Roeper" approach to crowd-pleasing. But as he emerged with Edwards in front of a huge crowd (25,000 by the campaign's estimates) at North Carolina State University in Raleigh last week, Kerry couldn't resist flashing a thumb at the cameras.

It's not just the thumbs. Kerry is visibly lighter, happier and unburdened with Edwards at his side. "He puts him at ease," said one of the Kerry clan. "It's great to have someone to share things with." So Kerry tells stories about his running mate's cute young children as if he's their doting grandfather. He tells jokes about his running mate's hair, as if his own mop was its original color. And he even finds the inner strength to enjoy his running mate's status as the hottest member of Congress. "His name is John, my name is John," Kerry liked to say last week. "He's a lawyer, I'm a lawyer. He's People magazine's sexiest politician in America. I read People magazine." In an interview with NEWSWEEK last week, Edwards returned the backhanded compliment. "He thinks he's a lot better looking than me," the new veep pick said, beaming his trademark grin. "It's all in the eye of the beholder," Kerry shot back with a smirk.

Normally it's the candidate's wife who has such an effect on the campaign trail, but Teresa Heinz Kerry is as earnest as her husband. At their first photo op on the Heinz family farm outside Pittsburgh, Edwards painted a typically sunny picture of the Kerry campaign. "This campaign is about the future, and it's about restoring hope," he said. Teresa followed with a bleak picture of life in the Ohio Valley. "It's been 20-plus years now, almost 30, that people in this area haven been hit by lost jobs, pollution," she said. "America is full of places like the Ohio Valley--Youngstown, West Virginia, Tennessee. It's the same story." Teresa's idea of a joke is to adapt the title of the campaign's unofficial theme song: "Johnny B. Goode." "The Johnnys B. Goode," as Teresa called the ticket in Raleigh. "And they will be good if [Edwards's wife] Elizabeth and I have anything to do with it," she added with a chuckle.

The early polls suggest that Edwards, for all his likeability, has added little to the Democratic ticket. But the lasting power of the veep pick lies less in any impact on the numbers and more in his impact on Kerry himself. Kerry remains a work in progress, a candidate whose performance can still be patchy, even though it has improved beyond recognition since the primary season began. "It's not black and white," says one member of the family. "He can be spontaneous with a crowd. He has his good days and his bad days."

On his good days, Kerry can warm to his audience and deliver an improvised speech with flair. On his bad days, he can sound like Demosthenes, the ancient orator--or (what's worse for the nation's swing voters) like Michael Moore the flame-throwing filmmaker. In Dayton, Ohio, last week, Kerry ripped Bush on Iraq: "This president abused the power given to him, broke his promises to the nation, misled America, and I believe we deserve a president and vice president who tell the truth to the country," he said. Edwards, in contrast, stressed Kerry's positive qualities to make the same point in far less strident terms. "The one thing I can tell you that you can take to the bank," Edwards said, "when he is president of the United States, every day that he is in the White House he will tell the American people the truth."

It's as if Kerry and Edwards have switched the traditional roles of a presidential ticket. Where the veep candidate would normally engage in attack-dog politics, Edwards remains relentlessly happy. And where the top of the ticket would normally paint the big picture of America's future, Kerry comes out swinging at the Bushies. At several points in their NEWSWEEK interview, Kerry sat back in his chair and smiled serenely as he admired Edwards's ability to speak smoothly and warmly about America's struggling middle classes or life in rural towns. Through his troubled primary campaign, Kerry proved he was a quick study, shaping up his stump speech and mastering the town hall meeting. Now he needs to study his running mate's style and make it his own in the few weeks left before the general election gets underway. Kerry's challenge this summer is to step into Stepford without surrendering his brain.