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VICE PRESIDENTIAL RACE

Despite lack of spotlight, Edwards campaign shines

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Sometimes, it's as though it were two-against-one as John F. Kerry seeks the presidency: Vice President Dick Cheney knocks him down, and President Bush grinds in his heel.

While it may not seem so from the national news coverage of late, the Democratic presidential nominee does have a partner in the campaign. John Edwards is wowing crowds in battleground states, even as some members of his party wonder why he is not attracting the same attention to their cause as Cheney is for the Republicans -- whether by chiding Kerry for talking about waging a more "sensitive" war on terror, or declaring that if the country makes the wrong choice on Election Day, "then the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists.

Two or three times a day, the Democratic vice presidential nominee pops into a pivotal media market, addresses a rally, or conducts a town hall meeting, and then sits for a round of interviews with local reporters. Edwards will increasingly focus on the Ohio River Valley, where the campaign thinks the North Carolina senator's son-of-a-mill-worker life story may play particularly well among rural voters in Ohio and West Virginia.

What he says may not make it onto the front page or airwaves elsewhere in the country, but it does where the election may be decided. That, the Kerry campaign says, is exactly what it wants.

"He is actually spending a lot of time on the electoral map, and we're using his presence to drive local coverage," said Mary Beth Cahill, the Kerry-Edwards campaign manager.

Last Tuesday, the day after Edwards visited New Mexico and Arizona, the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper declared, "Edwards: Bush's Health Care Plan Is Ill." Edwards's speeches scored front-page treatment in Tucson and Portland, Ore., as well.

"What I saw was what I thought was just about right," said Walter F. Mondale, who ran for vice president in 1976 and 1980 and for president in 1984, and who attended Edwards's event in St. Paul on Labor Day. "You don't want a hatchet man out there. I don't think he could be one if he wanted to be. But I always thought there was a difference between being hatchet man and making hard points based on facts and circumstances."

As for Edwards's counterpart, Mondale said: "I think that Cheney is creating more intensity in the hard-core Republicans who probably like this stuff, but I think Cheney is a negative in Middle America. I think most of them identify him with his comments in the run-up to the [Iraq] war, saying there were weapons of mass destruction, that there was a connection to Sept. 11th, and that they would greet us with roses, so I think he's a mixed blessing for the Republican ticket."

Edwards aides privately say their internal polling data indicate Cheney is "toxic" among undecided voters and those in the Midwestern states targeted by both campaigns. That said, his lesson is taking root in the Kerry-Edwards campaign, with Edwards beginning to assume a more aggressive role.

In the weeks after the Democratic National Convention, Edwards used his sunny smile and amiable manner to contrast the Democratic ticket with the Republicans in a nonpolarizing way. But in Tucson last week, he triggered boos from an audience of about 8,000 when he mentioned Cheney's warning about terrorism should the country make the wrong choice on Election Day. Edwards also mocked Cheney for saying that national economic indicators do not register some novel ways in which Americans are making money, such as sales on the Internet trading site eBay.

"What more proof do we need that these people are completely out of touch?" he said. "I guess the next thing coming is, 'If we count the lemonade stands and the bake sales, the economy's doing just great.' Right?"

The Edwards approach is more filet knife than meat cleaver, but Kerry's top advisers say it is exactly what they want.

"The Cheney coverage has been driven by these far-out claims he's been making lately," said Marcus Jadotte, Kerry's deputy campaign manager and the senior campaign official traveling with Edwards. "It's the kind of coverage that I don't think would be helpful to us."

Democrats attending Edwards's events say they think his approach will pay dividends on Election Day, just as it did in the primaries when he emerged as the last major challenger standing against Kerry.

"He hits the right points," said Neil J. Konigsberg, a lawyer who attended the Tucson speech. "It's positive; it's not negative. It focuses on the issues, and it's not a smear like we get from the other side. He knows how to speak to people."

Alice Norris, the mayor of Oregon City, a Portland suburb, said: "He brought the issues down to the most personal level, where most of us stand. . . . He speaks in short, concise sentences. He talks directly to us. You notice he said to each questioner today, 'You know, I know what you're talking about.' "

Indeed, the biggest difference between Kerry and Edwards campaign events is the energy that the vice presidential candidate exudes.

During his appearances in Tucson, Reno, and Oregon City on Monday and Tuesday, Edwards bounded onto the stage with a broad smile and an energetic pump of his hand while giving the thumbs-up sign. Like Kerry, Edwards delivers virtually the same stump speech wherever he goes, but he limits his remarks to 20 minutes, and he invites audience participation that invigorates his crowds.

"A typical family's income . . . is it up?" he asked in Tuscon. "No" came the roar from the crowd. "No," Edwards echoed. "It's down about $1,500."

Like Kerry, Edwards also does not take questions from the national reporters traveling aboard his campaign plane, a strategy designed to limit coverage to the campaign's chosen speaking topic at each public appearance.

Unlike Kerry, who as the figure atop the ticket must carefully articulate the campaign's positions, Edwards glosses over the intricacies of proposals such as their health care plan or, in one case in Oregon City, the details of how they would improve health care for veterans.

"When John Kerry is president, I can tell you, he will wake up every day taking personally the care that veterans are getting in this country, and they will get the care that they need," he told a former combat Marine from the Vietnam War, in which Kerry also served.

And unlike Kerry, Edwards also adheres closely to his schedule, shaking hands after his events, conducting his interviews with an almost robotic repetitiveness, and then heading back to his hotel for a sacrosanct activity: his daily jog.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com.

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