Now It's Showtime For John Kerry

He has money and a popular veep pick, but he still hasn't wowed voters

The instant reviews are in. Voters have given Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry high marks for picking charismatic first-term North Carolina Senator John Edwards as his running mate. In a matter of hours, a dead-even contest was transformed into a 49% to 41% Kerry lead over President Bush, according to a July 6 NBC News Poll.

The veep bump is welcome news to Democrats who have been frustrated for months at their plodding standard-bearer's inability to pull ahead of a struggling incumbent. Kerry now is in a strong position against a sitting President as the July 26-29 Democratic National Convention nears. Most Americans tell pollsters that Bush doesn't deserve a second term amid the violence of a troubled Iraq occupation and the pocketbook pain of an uneven economic recovery. Kerry's military record has helped insulate him from the traditional GOP "weak on defense" assault. And he has raised far more money than any Democrat before him, turning what once looked like a 3-to-1 GOP cash advantage into something closer to a more manageable 2-to-1 difference -- or perhaps even a draw, if union expenditures and liberal "527" groups are taken into account.

Perhaps most important, Kerry has made deep inroads with the swing voters who will determine what is shaping up to be another close election. A July 1-3 American Research Group Inc. poll showed Kerry leading Bush among independents, 50% to 39%, with 4% going to Ralph Nader. While Kerry may yet bear down further on this bloc, just 4 in 10 independents believe Bush is doing a good job.

SOARING ON THE STUMP

Kerry's vice-presidential pick, a stem-winding Southerner whose populist stump style could help Dems with blue-collar workers, seems like another plus. During his short-lived Presidential bid, Edwards electrified crowds with his laments about the inequities of "two Americas" and Clinton-like tales of rising by his bootstraps from mill worker's son to successful trial lawyer. Despite a consistently liberal Senate voting record, Edwards scored well in the primaries with conservative Democrats, independents, and even moderate Republicans. "Edwards has Clintonian appeal," says Al From, chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "He brings a huge amount of optimism to the ticket and has a track record of reaching out to swing voters."

The Kerry-Edwards team is hoping to showcase that optimism at the upcoming convention. Because Kerry is still unfamiliar to many Americans -- 29% say they have not yet formed an opinion of him, according to a July 6 CBS News poll -- his star turn at the party's Boston conclave is vital to his campaign. While watched by a dwindling share of TV viewers, conventions are still launch pads for White House challengers. That was certainly the case in 1992, when an embattled Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton rocketed ahead of the first President Bush and H. Ross Perot after a glitzy New York confab that showcased him as a working-class hero from "a place called Hope."

Yet for all this, Kerry has nagging problems. Although he's spent $60 million on advertising over the past four months, an $80 million-plus barrage of GOP attack ads that played up real and imagined Kerry flip-flops has done an effective job raising questions about his record. Now, 55% of voters think the 20-year Senate veteran says what people want to hear, according to a June 23-27 CBS News (VIA )/New York Times (NYT ) poll.

Even among fellow Democrats, Kerry has a ways to go to convince voters that he has the right stuff. According to a June 3-13 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, 42% of Democrats give Kerry a grade of "C" or worse for making a compelling case for his candidacy. "His strength is that Bush is weak," says Pew Research Center Director Andrew Kohut. "He has still to make the case for himself. He's not associated with any big themes or big ideas."

A NADER NEUTRALIZER?

Edwards, too, has to brace himself against attacks that he is nothing more than a callow lawmaker with scant credentials for wartime duty. Indeed, 55% of Americans told Gallup that Edwards' limited political experience was a weakness. To counter that perception, the Kerry campaign will emphasize the Carolinian's service on the Senate Intelligence Committee and his work on the pressing issues of homeland security and bioterrorism.

A more complicated problem for Kerry and Edwards is Nader. Polls show that if Nader wins a place on the ballot, the former Green Party standard-bearer would siphon away enough votes from Kerry to erase Democratic leads in must-win states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington, and Florida. To attract Nader fans, Kerry already has enlisted former foe Howard Dean to debate the consumer advocate. And polls show that Edwards, with his attacks on corporate greed, appeals to many of the angry left-wingers who also like Nader.

Of course, Republicans are pointing to Edwards' populism as further evidence that the Democratic team is outside the mainstream. Working with Hill Republicans, the White House is hoping to highlight the social liberalism of the Kerry-Edwards team on issues such as gay rights and late-term abortion. Meanwhile, Bush backers will portray the pair as anticorporate extremists bent on protectionism, re-regulation, and higher taxes.

The coming GOP attacks are sure to shrink Kerry's newfound lead. But just by hanging in the game, uniting the party's traditional warring factions, proving himself a demon fund-raiser, and making a popular vice-presidential choice, Kerry is something Democrats missed in 2000: a smart campaigner with a hunger to win.

By Richard S. Dunham, with Lee Walczak, in Washington

— With assistance by Lee Walczak

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