Tuesday, October 05, 2004

IS EDWARDS READY FOR HIS CLOSE-UP? I've been lukewarm on John Edwards from the moment that John Kerry chose him as his running mate. Back when the announcement was made, I called Edwards "probably the best of some not-so-great choices." Nor was I crazy about his speech at the Democratic National Convention.

Tonight it's up to Edwards to keep the momentum from last Thursday's debate moving in Kerry's direction. On the face of it, he should have an easier time than Joe Lieberman did four years ago. Back then, to the extent that Dick Cheney was a known quantity, he was generally well-regarded for the job he had done as secretary of defense during the first Gulf War. Now he comes with some pretty heavy baggage.

Among other things, Cheney has earned a reputation as perhaps the most untruthful member of the Bush administration, lying to Tim Russert about his Halliburton compensation package (see "Whopper No. 7" specifically) and lying to the American people about the (nonexistent) ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. And when Cheney's not lying, he's running around telling people that a vote for Kerry is a vote for Osama bin Laden. Cheney, to most observers' surprise, beat Lieberman handily by projecting an air of cool, business-like confidence. There's no way that Cheney should come out of tonight's debate the winner.

Is Edwards up for it? In today's Boston Globe, Peter Canellos has a pretty smart analysis of what was wrong with the Edwards pick. Canellos argues that, at first, it appeared to be an inspired choice. But as Kerry came under fire for his service in Vietnam, of all things, Edwards's sunny disposition suddenly seemed not nearly as important as the fact that he is an inexperienced, first-term senator with virtually no background in foreign policy or military affairs. In such a changed environment, Canellos writes, Wesley Clark or Dick Gephardt might have been a better choice, since either would have been able credibly to defend Kerry rather than forcing Kerry to do the job himself.

So what should Edwards do tonight? I think he simply needs to remember two things. First, it's not about him, it's about Kerry. So he should forget his Mr. Nice Guy persona and be prepared to go deeply negative. Second, he's one of the best trial lawyers in the country. He should look at Dick Cheney the way he would look at the defendant in one of the medical-malpractice suits that made him rich and famous, and regard the viewers back home as though they were the jury. Moderator Gwen Ifill might make it difficult for him to do that. But Edwards needs to find a way.

And by the way, if you haven't read it yet, be sure to check out Curtis Wilkie's piece in the Sunday Globe on how Edwards fits in to the tradition of progressive Southern trial lawyers. Good stuff from a guy who really understands the South.

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