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Edwards Auditions For VP

Seeking to remind Democratic campaign operatives of the national appeal that propelled him to a surprisingly strong showing in the presidential primary process, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards has set an aggressive schedule of appearances over the next month on behalf of Sen. John Kerry and several top-tier Senate candidates.

Edwards’ activity comes as word has leaked in recent days that he along with Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack are the current frontrunners to be selected as Kerry’s vice presidential running mate.

More so than the other two men receiving mention, Edwards must actually audition for the post due to his relative inexperience and the fact that he would be unlikely to help the Democratic ticket carry his home state if chosen, according to conversations with numerous party strategists and consultants about his prospects.

“He has got to show that he still has the juice,” said one Democratic consultant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“He doesn’t have the argument that he can win North Carolina. He doesn’t have the experience argument. He has the argument that [voters] want and need him,” the source added.

Others suggested that while Edwards short-term goal is the vice presidential nomination, his current travels may be more about his ambitions for 2008.

“He is using his newfound stature to lay some future groundwork if that opportunity should arise,” suggested a Democratic consultant.

“Should John Kerry not win then you have an immediate focus on [New York Sen.] Hillary [Rodham Clinton],” added the consultant. “There is room for one other candidate. Who is the other one?”

During the primaries, Edwards rode a positive message to a second-place showing in the Iowa caucuses and a victory in South Carolina.

He was unable to record another victory, however, and dropped from the race in early March.

Kim Rubey, a spokeswoman for Edwards, said only that he “wants to help Senator Kerry in any way he can.”

Edwards was scheduled to address the Ohio Democratic Party on Saturday and will travel to Denver today to campaign with state Attorney General Ken Salazar, the party’s presumptive nominee for retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell’s (R) seat.

He will also appear in the presidential battlegrounds of Florida (June 11-13), Louisiana (June 19) and Iowa (June 25-26) at the request of the Kerry campaign; he will help raise money for Illinois Senate nominee Barack Obama in Bloomington on May 11 and former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles (N.C.) in Raleigh on May 23 to benefit his Senate bid. Edwards also did an event on May 1 for state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (S.C.), who is seeking to replace the retiring Sen. Fritz Hollings (D).

All four races are top priorities for Democrats in the battle for control of the Senate.

Rubey said that “if Democrats feel he can be helpful, he wants to do anything he can to support their campaigns.” She added that Edwards is “constantly reviewing requests” to appear on behalf of candidates.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Communications Director Brad Woodhouse praised Edwards for his willingness to campaign for Senate candidates.

“Few people in America can articulate the issues Democrats care about in this election like Senator Edwards, and his involvement will have a positive impact up and down the ballot,” Woodhouse said.

That viewpoint marks a dramatic reversal from the fall of 2003, when many Senate Democrats were angry at Edwards for postponing a decision on whether he would run for a second term and, they argued, jeopardizing their chances of holding his seat.

Under pressure to make a decision, he announced his retirement to devote his full attention to the presidential race.

In addition to his ramped-up schedule, Edwards has formed the One America Committee to fund his travels around the country on behalf of Kerry and other candidates.

The organization showed $40,000 raised at the end of March, the result of just over a week of fundraising efforts, according to Rubey.

In the runup to his presidential bid, Edwards used his New American Optimists leadership political action committee to donate to candidates in key early primary states such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

While Edwards operatives publicly say that his increased stumping is not an attempt to audition for vice president, there is clearly a strategy behind the effort, as his allies hope to avoid a repeat of 2000 when the Senator was the runner-up choice to be Al Gore’s ticketmate.

Edwards’ appearances on behalf of candidates show not only that there remains a significant level of excitement for him among base Democrats but also that he is one of the few national party figures that can campaign anywhere in the country without the possibility of a political backlash, according to his loyalists.

“He is going because he is the one being asked,” said a Democratic strategist who supported Edwards. “I don’t know that there is a clamor for these other people to go out and campaign.”

Another party strategist not affiliated with any of the potential vice presidential picks agreed that “if candidates are seeking you out in important swing states that should accrue to your benefit in the matrix of things that a presidential candidate is looking for when selecting a vice president.”

Edwards’ backers are not only advocating strongly for their candidate behind the scenes, but also attempting to poke holes in the justification for the selection of either Gephardt or Vilsack, both of whom would likely be chosen with the hope of carrying a critical battleground state.

They point out that the neither former President George H.W. Bush, the current President Bush or Gore selected a vice president based on their ability to deliver a state.

“It is a fallacy to assume that you can pick someone who can win a state,” said an Edwards-aligned strategist. “You don’t know what state is going to be the critical state at this stage of the game.”

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