Trail Mix: That's the Ticket

John Kerry bounded on stage, punched both fists towards today's crowd in downtown Pittsburgh, and plucked a speech out of his back pocket. For the first few minutes, he smirked, he smiled, and he tried to suppress a grin. But as the giant backdrop rose behind him emblazoned with his newly-announced campaign ticket, he could hold back no longer. Once the whoopin' and hollerin' had died down, he simply beamed: "I trust that met with your approval."

Kerry has plenty of reasons to feel good about far more than his hyperventilating fans. His process of picking John Edwards was everything he wanted to project about his campaign: discreet, exhaustive and a sign of his determination to win. After all the weeks of vetting, after all the cloak-and-dagger meetings with the candidates, Kerry managed to keep his veep decision private until the final hours. Edwards may have been on the media's shortlist from day one, but Kerry still managed to preserve the element of surprise in naming him. That was no small feat. Four hours before he told his own campaign manager of his pick, Kerry personally called his airline charter to order up a new KERRY EDWARDS decal for his plane. The plane remained locked in a hangar overnight, guarded by a campaign aide, with a sheet over Edwards's name.

Why the secrecy? Kerry and Edwards first bonded amid the shared disappointment of the Gore veep process in 2000. Kerry admits he felt dismayed by Gore's veep announcement--he found out through the media--and promised he would never run things the same way himself. That wasn't just out of concern for the losers' feelings. "He wanted a process that left him with even more surrogates who are excited to go out there and fight through November," said one senior Kerry aide. When Kerry phoned the disappointed candidates early Tuesday morning, the reactions--at least, according to Kerry's aides--were cordial for one simple reason. "They were very polite," said Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager. "Everybody really wants to help this ticket defeat President Bush."

Kerry may have felt more comfortable with Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, and he may have had more admiration for Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack's life story. But his decision to run with Edwards is based on a more clinical assessment of what the North Carolina senator brings to his campaign. "He was omnivorous on this, getting research and background papers, sending us back for more when he wanted to know about their public records, statements and feelings," said Cahill. "He kept coming back with more and more questions." Yet Cahill insists that Kerry did not request one piece of information: poll numbers on a Kerry-Edwards ticket. "The one thing I can tell you with absolute straightforwardness is that Senator Kerry has never asked for a poll in his life, or at least the time I have been with him." Cahill conceded there was "a huge amount of public polling" but insisted the campaign's veep research didn't include their own polls.

Beyond the poll numbers, Edwards fills two big gaps in Kerry's profile. Where Bush needed gravitas in 2000, Kerry needs levitas four years later. Faced with a Bush ad onslaught about his "pessimism," Kerry has picked a running mate whose face and manner exudes Carolinian sunshine. If there was one word that tripped off the tongue of Kerry's aides more than any other after the announcement, it was optimism. "I am determined that we reach out across party lines, that we speak to the heart of America, that we speak of hope and optimism" Kerry told the crowd in downtown Pittsburgh. "And John Edwards will join me in doing that." Behind the scenes, Kerry's aides spoke giddily of Edwards's "optimistic nature and can-do spirit" in almost Reaganesque terms.

The other big gap is Edwards's focus on working folks. It's not that Kerry hasn't tried to shed his patrician image or focus on middle-class Americans. It's just that Edwards (whose personal wealth is far greater than Kerry's) does it so much better. "He has been a very articulate advocate for the middle class," says Cahill. So articulate, that Kerry lifted Edwards's signature line in Pittsburgh. "As so many of you know throughout this campaign, John talked about the great divide in this country--the two Americas--that exists between those who are doing well and struggling to make it from day to day," Kerry said. "I'm so proud that together we're going to build one America."

Kerry's newfound respect for Edwards's campaign offers his opponents the most obvious opening in the first skirmishes over his veep pick. That's because for months during the primary season, Kerry showed far less respect as he sharply questioned Edwards's qualifications for the presidency. The Kerry campaign chose to sidestep questions about what might have changed about Edwards in the intervening months--why Kerry now believes Edwards could succeed him in case of disaster. At the same time, the Bushies launched a new TV ad called "First Choice" that featured Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whom Kerry had earlier sounded out about becoming his veep. The ad featured McCain praising President Bush for the war in Iraq. The Kerry campaign responded by releasing a statement by McCain praising Edwards for having "the ambition, the talent and the brains to go very far, to be president of the United States."

While the two campaigns skirmished over McCain, Edwards was packing his family to head to the Heinz family farm near Pittsburgh for a private dinner with the Kerrys and his first photo op with his new boss. Those first images of the new ticket will shape perceptions in the crucial run-up to the Democratic convention in Boston at the end of this month. They might also look surprisingly familiar. The Heinz home looks little like a farm, and far more like the governor's mansion of a small state. From its giant flagpole to its five-columned portico and white colonial facade, the setting recalls nothing so much as the iconic 12-year-old photos of another fresh-faced southern senator joining the governor of Arkansas in Little Rock. John Kerry may be no Bill Clinton (and John Edwards may be no Al Gore) but in his veep choice, the New England senator is hoping for more than a little of that old Southern magic.