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Kerry-Edwards ticket unlikely, aides say

JANESVILLE, Wis. -- After watching John Edwards's personable, Southern-fried stump speech, many Democrats have been talking about a presidential dream team: John F. Kerry and John Edwards.

But interviews with both campaigns indicate a Kerry-Edwards ticket is unlikely, and advisers to both men lack the excitement for such a pairing that some voters feel.

Several Kerry advisers say the Massachusetts senator is skeptical about Edwards's strength as a running mate, saying he appears to lack the clout with Southern voters that he often brags about being able to deliver. Edwards's inability to win more than a single primary state thus far may give him the aura of a loser in the general election, these Kerry aides said. And Kerry himself recently noted with a touch of derision that, according to opinion polls, President Bush would defeat Edwards in his own home state of North Carolina.

Kerry is also said to be unconvinced that Edwards is experienced enough to step in as a wartime president should something happen to him. National security credentials are the most important assets that the Democratic presidential front-runner would use to choose a running mate, these aides said.

Edwards, meanwhile, has dismissed talk that he would accept anything other than the Democratic nomination and has said he would not want Kerry to consider him for a running mate. Top Edwards staff members say he has never had a serious discussion about the vice presidency with them nor mused aloud about the possibility.

Instead, Edwards is convinced that his own prodigious retail politicking skills have been overshadowed by Kerry's electoral momentum. Edwards's aides say he believes Kerry's ascent has been driven largely by a compressed primary schedule that has deprived his rivals of time to reach out to voters with their own messages. And although Kerry has a string of 12 primary and caucus victories to Edwards's one, Edwards said yesterday no one in the Democratic Party has approached him about dropping out.

"Not one word," he said.

Despite the difficulty Edwards faces in trying to slow Kerry, he has been cautious about attacking Kerry directly. In three Wisconsin campaign speeches yesterday, he refrained from using Kerry's name, though he asked voters not to rush to judgment.

"You're proving here this morning that we're going to have an election in Wisconsin, not a coronation," he told about 100 people gathered at a Janesville union hall. "You want to see the candidates. You want to hear what they have to say. And you're going to make your own independent decision about who to vote for."

Later, when asked by a reporter to distinguish himself from Kerry on the issue of foreign trade, Edwards said: "Well, I can tell you what I have done. I opposed NAFTA -- I take trade and issues of job loss personally. I've seen it up close," calling these "obvious differences between us."

But that was as close as he came to a direct comparison with Kerry. "My campaign is based on a positive, optimistic vision," he said. "I think [Wisconsin voters] are going to evaluate each one of us on our own merits." Edwards has charmed thousands of potential voters over the last month and drawn praise for his charisma, enthusiasm, and positive message. But many potential voters, in the same breath, have said they fear that his lack of government experience and youthful appearance would be liabilities in an election year where national security promises to loom large. To reconcile these conflicting impressions, many voters have been suggesting that Edwards would make an appealing vice-presidential candidate. After Edwards's Janesville speech, Mick Gunn, 50, of Janesville, was asked of his impression: "I think he'd make a great vice president, to be honest." Dorothy Pangier, 73, also of Janesville, was impressed. "I was very well satisfied with him. It makes a difference to see him." But she was unsure of his prospects, and suggested he consider the vice presidency. "I hope he gets into office somehow."

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

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