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Edwards: A Senate Inkblot Test

Just hours after Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) was tapped to be his party’s vice presidential nominee, Republican Senators broadened their campaign against the Democratic presidential ticket Tuesday by questioning Edwards’ accomplishments in the chamber and accusing him of being an out-of-touch liberal.

Democrats, for their part, hailed the decision by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to choose Edwards as his running mate, claiming that the North Carolinian would allow the Democratic ticket to compete with President Bush in more states nationally.

By late morning, it was clear that another front in the battle for the White House was opening in the Senate, as Republicans pored over Edwards’ voting record for inconsistencies — much in the same way they have attacked Kerry for “flip-flopping” on legislation ever since Kerry locked up the Democratic nomination in March. Republican Senators began to articulate the critique that neither Kerry nor Edwards has been a particularly effective Senator.

“I think that an analysis of their records will show that in terms of committee work, in terms of moving important legislation, in terms of offering amendments, in terms of floor debate,” voters will find Kerry and Edwards to be “less than average Senators,” charged Republican Steering Chairman Jeff Sessions (Ala.).

“He has no record of accomplishment here in the United States Senate, so he fits in well with the Kerry ticket,” added Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.).

The Republican comments came in sharp contrast to those of Edwards’ Democratic colleagues. They argued that Edwards would not only bolster the Democratic presidential ticket but would also help them win the Senate majority in November.

“John Edwards is welcome in every single part of the country, and I would argue … he will be very effective in taking the Democratic message to these critical states where it is possible to win back the Senate this year,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).

Democrats said they believe that Edwards can help broaden their party’s appeal to voters in the South — where Democrats must defend five open Senate seats and where Kerry needs to win Florida — as well as the Midwest. The open Southern seats include Edwards’ own, which he gave up after serving one term.

“It will be good just from the translation factor,” said Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), referring to Edwards’ folksy North Carolina drawl. “People in the South — we don’t think we have an accent. And I think there is a comfort level for Southerners to know there is somebody on the ticket that sounds like this.”

But Republicans questioned how much appeal Edwards would have with Southern voters who tend to vote for candidates with more conservative views.

“If his record was in line with the way a majority of Southerners think, I say it might make a difference,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.). But without that, he added, “I don’t see how it can make much a difference.”

Santorum offered an even harsher assessment of Edwards’ ability to appeal to Southern voters, suggesting that his Senate colleague realized his politics were “so liberal he couldn’t run for re-election in North Carolina” — and that is why he chose instead to run for the White House.

Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said voters want a ticket that looks like it should be residing in the White House. Democrats, he said, now offer two athletic, youngish, forward-looking Senators. In what appeared to be an indirect shot at President Bush and Vice President Cheney, Reid said, “Not only visually are they so much better, they are men of substance.”

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said the Kerry-Edwards ticket offered the nation nothing more than a liberal agenda that would be rejected by the majority of voters.

“This is a left-leaning ticket that I think is out of step with the mainstream of American values, and where America thinks we ought to go,” Cornyn said.

Kerry and Edwards are scheduled to begin a multistate campaign tour beginning today that will take them to Ohio, Florida, New York, West Virginia, New Mexico and North Carolina.

It is unclear when Edwards and Kerry would return to the Senate to vote. Aides to the two Senators said they are not sure if they would be present for next week’s vote on a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, since a specific date for a vote has not been set.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said he would urge the GOP leadership to “accommodate” the schedules of Kerry and Edwards because it involves altering the Constitution — but he added that the two Senators should commit to voting on the issue.

“If they care about this issue and other issues they ought to be prepared to show up now and then,” Lott said. “I think they ought to consider it.”

Still, Senate Democrats acknowledged that they expected to see even less of Kerry and Edwards, making it that much harder to win critical votes as the duo spends an overwhelming majority of its time from now until Nov. 2 campaigning and missing even more votes.

“From this point on, their mission is to win the White House,” said Senate Democratic Policy Chairman Byron Dorgan (N.D.).

Daschle left open the possibility that Kerry and Edwards would still return to the chamber for the most critical votes. “They’ll come back. If there’s a key vote, they’ll be here,” Daschle said.

Since the Democratic nomination was unofficially settled in early March, Kerry has voted only rarely. Edwards, too, has been spotty in terms of voting attendance.

While campaigning for Kerry in June — and ostensibly burnishing his own chances of landing the No. 2 spot — Edwards made just 18 of the first 32 votes of the month. During the final week before the July 4th recess, he made every vote and bumped his roll-call attendance up to more than 70 percent of the votes.

Still, Edwards has already disappeared from other Senate duties. Since dropping out of the presidential race March 3, Edwards missed at least eight out of nine executive business meetings of the Judiciary Committee — sessions in which his votes on President Bush’s nominees were almost always cast by proxy by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member.

Dorgan said the chamber has already been so bottlenecked by partisan fighting that the important number for Democrats has been 41 votes — enough to block cloture on any GOP-pushed legislation. Democrats say they should have little trouble maintaining 41 votes even with Kerry and Edwards on the road full time.

“You don’t have to strategize too much to stop something that’s not moving,” he said.