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Edwards pits charisma vs. Kerry momentum

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. - For months, the Edwards campaign has operated on a simple maxim - that the more people see Senator John Edwards, the more they like him.

That is one reason strategists for the North Carolina senator see the current landscape as a dream come true, putting Edwards directly alongside Senator John F. Kerry in a slew of simultaneous primary contests that will depend heavily on free news coverage.

Neither candidate has enough money to flood the airwaves with advertising in the 10 states that vote March 2, giving Edwards, 50, a chance to show off his youthful charisma and down-to-earth oratory in media reports and debates.

Kerry, by contrast, often battles a tendency toward long-winded answers - one reason his advisers have been less enthusiastic about putting him alone on a stage with Edwards - and has been the subject of recent stories scrutinizing his long record in the Senate.

But Kerry, 60, holds some powerful advantages in the current setting, too: his national security background and string of triumphs in primaries from coast to coast have built a near-consensus that he is the Democrat best able to beat President Bush, boosting his popularity and name recognition in the Super Tuesday states.

His success has also given him the right to call himself a ``national candidate'' and a stable of surrogates to campaign on his behalf.

``Between our surrogates on the ground and John Kerry crisscrossing the country, we'll have far greater visibility among voters than John Edwards will have,'' one senior Kerry adviser said.

In essence, both the Edwards and Kerry campaigns are taking different approaches to the same principle. Both are homing in on their best traits and trying to shift the equation for winning the nomination in their direction. Edwards focuses on his modest Southern roots, personal appeal, and upbeat message. Kerry points to his strong resume and pattern of victories.

For Edwards, that means connecting with voters on subjects such as unemployment and poverty. For Kerry, that means reassuring voters he will stand tall against Bush, particularly on national security and military issues.

``Edwards can call himself the outsider with credibility; he's only been in Washington a few years. And he emotes, he's got all that [Bill]Clinton charisma,'' said professor Larry Gerston, a political science specialist at San Jose State University in California. ``Kerry definitely doesn't have that going for him. Kerry is going to argue, `Do you want charisma, or do you want experience? Do you want somebody who can make you smile, or hold your hand, or do you want somebody who is strong on national security?'''

Jenny Backus, a Democratic consultant unaffiliated with either campaign, had an almost identical view. ``What the Kerry people are going to try to do, both literally and figuratively, is convey an aura of strength,'' she said. They are ``chock-full of congressional and institutional endorsements ... and Kerry is arguing, `I'm the strongest to take on Bush, with my war service, and I'm a proven winner and a proven fighter.'

``His events are all tailored around showing him as the go-to player, the strongest player on the team, tough enough and smart enough and popular enough to run from coast to coast.''

Edwards, on the other hand, is ``playing off his amazing river of optimism,'' Backus said. ``Edwards has figured out that Democrats have got to talk to people and make them feel comfortable with them. He understands that people feel left behind by the Republicans, and he's going beyond the notion of `feeling their pain,' tapping into what is making them feel uncomfortable and empowering their opinions.''

She added: ``All the people who voted for Edwards have said, `He knows what I'm feeling.' We haven't seen that since Clinton, and I think Edwards does it better than Clinton in some ways.''

And to be sure, both sides are well aware of their strengths - and weaknesses.

On an almost daily basis, the Edwards team issues a plea for Kerry to participate in more debates, in the belief that the veteran trial lawyer can only profit from going head-to-head with longtime senator.

Kerry, on the other hand, has a team of researchers mining the Edwards record for inconsistencies and continually stressing the younger senator's lack of experience, surrounding himself with veterans, and focusing most of his attacks on Bush to appear as much like the presumptive nominee as possible. The hope among Kerry advisers is that Edwards will get bogged down in a few targeted states - New York and Georgia, in particular - while Kerry continues to pick up endorsements in the same states to push his electability argument further.

By the same token, almost every strategic decision in the Edwards campaign is geared to remind voters he is a sunny, charismatic champion of the working class who hails from humble Southern roots.

``To see Edwards is to like him,'' one adviser said of the campaign's mantra. The policy differences between Kerry and Edwards are minor, Edwards's strategists contend, making personality all-important.

That approach worked on Susan Beckerman of Jamaica, N.Y., part of the borough of Queens, who was laid off from her human resources job this winter. When she heard Edwards speak after his surprise second-place showing in Iowa, he immediately won her vote, especially with his oratory about lifting Americans out of poverty and restoring the nation's hope.

``When I saw that, I said this is who I'm working for next,'' said Beckerman, who signed up to help the Edwards campaign. ``I was in junior high when Kennedy was assassinated, and I haven't been able to fully support a candidate since. Until now.''

With Edwards's strong second-place showing in Iowa, his staff decided that he would stay in the race, until it was a two-senator matchup. Now, that has happened - but time and Kerry's media-dominating momentum are the biggest hurdles for Edwards, according to his advisers.

Edwards's strategy is to repeatedly hit media markets in certain Super Tuesday states: New York, Minnesota, Ohio, and Georgia. All have faced considerable job losses over the last decade and might take to his populist message, his advisers say.

Edwards's staff concedes Kerry will win more delegates than the North Carolina senator on Super Tuesday. They want just enough to push on to March 9, when Edwards will make his stand in Texas, Florida, Mississippi, and Louisiana - all delegate-rich states where Edwards believes his Southern charm and working-class persona will lead to victory. Victories there could nearly even the delegate count.

Kerry, by contrast, is riding his endorsements by both Representative Richard A. Gephardt and the AFL-CIO labor coalition as proof that he connects with ordinary people, an assertion he has tried to bolster by criticizing Edwards over the North American Free Trade Agreement.

As Kerry frequently notes, he has won more than a dozen primaries. In the end, his advisers argue, second place doesn't count.

Mishra reported from New York and Kornblut from Washington. Patrick Healy of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Boston.

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