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Will Edwards Make a Difference? That Depends on Where You Ask

The selection of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards as the Democratic vice presidential nominee seems unlikely to have a dramatic long-term impact on the current Senate playing field although Democratic and Republican strategists acknowledge that the pick presents challenges and opportunities for both parties.

“The presidential race has only a marginal effect on big, well-funded Senate races,” said Jim Jordan, former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Coattails only happen when voters are ignorant or agnostic.”

Republican pollster Glen Bolger, who is involved in a number of high-profile Senate races, said that vice presidential candidates traditionally have “very limited impact” on downballot contests.

“The choice is between the two guys running for the top office,” Bolger said.

Nonetheless, Senate Democrats sought to capitalize on the media coverage provided by the unveiling of Edwards as Kerry’s second-in-command.

“Edwards is the strongest guy to help us out of the potential vice presidents,” said DSCC Chairman Jon Corzine (D-N.J.), who advocated for the selection of the North Carolina Senator both publicly and privately in recent weeks. “It is a great statement to the country that we are running everywhere.”

Of the 10 Senate races seen as highly competitive between the parties, 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore carried just one — Illinois.

This problem is particularly acute in the South where five Democrats are retiring at the end of the 108th Congress. The region has grown increasingly inhospitable for the national party over the past two decades.

Democratic pollster Dave Beattie said that Edwards’ Southern bona fides provide a “very good counterbalance” to Kerry, who has been dismissed by Republicans as a “Northeastern liberal.”

Jordan said the addition of Edwards would make the “ticket feel less culturally exotic” to Southern voters.

Much of Edwards’ alleged appeal in the South is based on two contests: His convincing victory in South Carolina primary on Feb. 3 and his 1998 Senate triumph in North Carolina.

In the presidential primary, Edwards won the support of 45 percent of Palmetto State Democrats by touting his Southern roots and ability to appeal to independent and conservative-minded voters.

Edwards won independent voters, which comprised roughly a quarter of the electorate, by a 2-to-1 margin.

On the same day, Edwards made a strong second place showing in Oklahoma but was unable to build on that momentum, eventually dropping out of the race in March.

Edwards won his seat six years ago by defeating Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R), one of five Senators to lose re-election bids that cycle.

“He has a proven record of being able to communicate to swing voters in a Southern state,” said Democratic media consultant Anita Dunn.

Jon McHenry, a Republican pollster who has done extensive work in the South, disagreed with that assessment.

He said that Edwards’ appeal was overstated given that polling showed him running neck and neck with Rep. Richard Burr (R) before the Senator decided not to seek re-election.

“I am not convinced Edwards would have been able to hold his own Senate seat,” McHenry said.

Strategists in both parties agreed that the presence of Edwards at the top of the ticket is likely to have the most influence on the race to replace him between Burr and 2002 nominee Erskine Bowles (D).

“Edwards on the ticket is definitely good for Erskine Bowles,” said Bowles spokeswoman Susan Lagana. “More importantly, it’s good for North Carolina.”

Lagana added that the state will benefit from having a North Carolinian in the White House, a fact Bowles knows well given his stint as chief of staff to then-President Bill Clinton.

Bolger, a consultant to Burr’s campaign, argued that the presence of Edwards on the presidential ticket will allow the Burr campaign to more easily nationalize the race.

“It is an easier bridge to tie Bowles to Kerry,” said Bolger, a move, he said, that their foe is “deathly afraid of.”

Former Rep. John Thune (R-S.D.) seems likely to pursue that same strategy in his challenge to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D). On Tuesday, Thune called the Kerry-Edwards pairing Daschle’s “worst nightmare.”

“The Kerry-Edwards-Daschle ticket is far more liberal than South Dakota,” Thune added.

Neither Kerry nor Edwards is likely to set foot in South Dakota before the election, however, as Bush won the state by 22 points in 2000.

The situation is similar in South Carolina, a Republican stronghold at the presidential level, where state Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum (D) is taking on Rep. Jim DeMint (R).

Tenenbaum has been careful to this point in the race to distance herself from the national party, most notably announcing her support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

In a statement released Tuesday by her campaign, Tenenbaum hewed closely to that rhetoric, praising Edwards but quickly pivoting to say that “when it comes to electing their next Senator, South Carolinians will choose an independent leader who will put partisanship aside and put South Carolina first.”

South Carolina Democrats expressed little concern about the potential nationalization of the race, pointing out that when Edwards spoke to the state party convention in May, he showed a deft understanding of the need to keep the race focused on local issues and not provide fodder for the GOP.

Republicans are not likely to let Tenenbaum off that easily, however, as indicated by the comments of National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) when asked about the choice of Edwards.

“Let’s see what Inez Tenenbaum has to say,” said Allen before rattling off a list of issues — including partial birth abortion — on which Edwards differs from the average South Carolinian and for which, he argues, Tenenbaum will have to answer.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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