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The Edwards Factor: Energy, Enthusiasm and a Shot in the South

Like Sen. Joe Lieberman (Conn.) before him, Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards (N.C.) can help motivate and expand the base of the party and be a strong voice in assisting Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) in defending the Democratic Party’s values of fairness, opportunity and prosperity for all Americans. [IMGCAP(1)]

The telegenic Edwards helps redefine the party in terms of values and vision. But for this to happen, the Kerry campaign must allow John Edwards to be John Edwards.

Before Edwards dives too deeply into the great “melting pot” we call America with his strong populist message of “One America” in which hope abounds, however, he would be wise to concentrate on carrying his home state’s 15 electoral votes.

Back in 1998, Edwards took on the political equivalent of Goliath in challenging incumbent Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R). The Republicans underestimated the young Edwards and spent most of the campaign trying to ridicule his professional background. They tried to paint him as a rich trial lawyer (as if that’s insult enough in and of itself) without understanding his roots and the values that shaped him. The voters in North Carolina didn’t buy the negative stuff, and I believe the American people will again reject the GOP’s cynicism and negative ads and focus on trying to learn about the candidates themselves.

The bottom line is, with or without Edwards, the South should be in play for Democrats. With so many Senate seats at stake, Edwards on the ticket can be a catalyst for the party’s comeback in the region. With a vigorous campaign, Democrats should make a strong bid to win or at the very least make states like North Carolina, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina more competitive.

The financial and political resources required to make victory possible are enormous, but given the historic level of unity in the party and strong support from leaders on the ground in those states, this investment could reap future dividends and help underfunded challengers in those states make credible bids.

It’s worth exploring how key Southern states can become part of the party’s overall strategy for victory. In addition to polling, Democratic strategists need to talk to locals about how to put their more into play. This is the moment to really engage the local leaders and activists who have kept their states fertile for a strong Democratic message while the national party has simply stood by or delivered limited dollars and support.

Democrats should seize the political initiative and force the Republican Party to defend its values of greed, avarice, insularity, intolerance and cultural snobbiness that has made its policy agenda totally unacceptable to the region’s poor and minority residents.

In the South and elsewhere, Kerry’s choice has created what I like to call the “Edwards Factor.” After long conversations with many friends and longtime Democratic activists who attended this weekend’s Kerry-Edwards rally at North Carolina State University, this strong, electable and most appealing ticket has more potential to motivate Democratic base voters than we’ve seen in years. And, from what I am hearing from Congressional candidates and downballot challengers, it is also clear that Edwards is a favorite pick to appeal to swing and independent voters.

But it’s that potential to motivate the base that may be most important — if Democrats commit the resources that are sorely needed.

Take the example of Lavonia Allison, a hard-working Democratic leader and activist in Durham, N.C., and the Piedmont regional vice chairwoman of the North Carolina Black Leadership Caucus. Yesterday, she could hardly hold back her enthusiasm. Edwards, she said, has “made her proud.” He has injected her and others with a new sense of energy and excitement about Democratic prospects this fall. Allison is ready to work. She doesn’t need money, just a car with a tank of gas and a driver to help take her around the 29 counties to spread the good news about the Kerry-Edwards ticket.

I have heard from many activists like Allison who want to do more than hold house parties and raise money. They’re ready to roll up their sleeves, pound the pavement, rally ministers and youths, register new voters and contact inactive voters to reconnect them to the party.

The truth is, people who know John and Elizabeth Edwards like them for being who they are: unpretentious, optimistic, emotionally well-adjusted folks who are extremely generous with their time and resources. Together, they have brought some needed warmth to the Kerry campaign and have also infused it with some new blood and talent.

Back in 2000, Lieberman’s honeymoon lasted for weeks. He was value added and a true asset to the Gore team. Like Edwards, he was passionate and understood how to connect with voters. Lieberman was a natural leader who was (and is to this day) extremely comfortable with himself and understood why discussing the party’s values was important.

Republicans spent weeks trying to undermine Gore’s decision to select Lieberman and got nowhere. In addition to pre- and post-convention bounces in the polls, Lieberman helped Gore seal the deal with base, swing and independent voters alike. Edwards can do the same for Kerry and the entire Democratic Party. By allowing Edwards to be Edwards, the Democratic Party has just stirred in an important ingredient for their electoral recipe: passion.

Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.