WASHINGTON – Sen. John Kerry (search) held a brief, secretive meeting with potential running mate John Edwards (search) on Tuesday, a spur-of-the-moment session in the Capitol that capped an unusual day of hurry-up-and-wait in the heavily scripted life of the Democratic presidential candidate.
The two men met in the President's Room (search), whether they knew the name or not, an ornate sitting room just off the Senate chamber, and they declined to speak with reporters afterward. While the brevity of the session indicated it was less than a full-fledged vice presidential interview, it came roughly a month before the opening of the Democratic National Convention (search), and at a time when Edwards is frequently mentioned as a potential running mate.
"Senator Kerry has made clear that he wants that whole process to be quiet and confidential, which I think is the correct way to do it," Edwards told reporters earlier in the day. "Because of that I'm silent."
The meeting came on an unusual day for Kerry, who spent it not campaigning for votes in New Mexico, as originally scheduled, but in the Capitol. He had come, he said, to cast a vote to increase funding for veterans' health care. Republicans, eager to deny Kerry the moment he sought, maneuvered to prevent a roll call.
By evening, he bemoaned the delay in remarks on the Senate floor. "We have an opportunity to make a choice today. If we don't, then we'll continue to talk about this issue over the next months," the Democratic presidential candidate said. "And the American people will make a choice in November."
The proposal was advanced by Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, who said it was designed to make sure enough money was available each year to covers the prescription drug and health care costs of all veterans eligible for them. Aides put its cost at $300 billion over the next decade.
Kerry has been in the Capitol infrequently this year as he pursues the presidency. But on this day, the man whose days are normally a frenzy of campaign activity spent hours chatting amiably with colleagues on the Senate floor, giving fellow Democrats an overview of his campaign at a closed-door lunch and posing with 99 other senators for the formal portrait of the 108th Congress.
He got a high-five greeting from Sen. Barbara Boxer of California; a kiss from Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, and a thumbs-up from Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. "Our next president is in there. He was fantastic," Boxer said after attending the lunch.
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who rejected overtures that he join Kerry on a ticket that crossed party lines, walked by him on the Senate floor at one point and leaned over to greet his fellow Vietnam War veteran. Kerry remained seated, the two men grasped hands and chatted briefly.
"Senator Kerry ought to have an opportunity to vote" on veterans, Daschle, of South Dakota, said at mid-afternoon, at a time when the presidential candidate still nursed hopes — later abandoned — of being able to do so in time to fly to New Mexico for an evening fund-raiser.
Edwards, a first-term North Carolina senator, was present on the Senate floor for nearly the entire time in the morning that Kerry mingled, but the two men stayed in separate orbits.
They met a few hours later, when they repaired to a small room and closed the doors for a private word. The session did not appear on either man's schedule and lasted only a few minutes. Aides to Kerry sought to minimize the political significance of the meeting. For his part, the Massachusetts senator appeared taken aback afterward when he realized photographers were waiting for the two men to leave the room. He spoke to Senate aides, who then informed waiting photographers he did not wish to have his picture taken.
Whatever the significance of the meeting, Edwards has influential supporters in the jockeying that accompanies the selection of a running mate.
Leaders of the largest union in the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees International Union, want him on the ticket, and the union's president, Andy Stern, said that in a straw poll of the union's executive board, 90 percent chose Edwards.
Edwards was Kerry's most persistent rival during the primary campaign, and his showing greatly raised his stock in the vice presidential sweepstakes that has followed. Sources have said that Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and Edwards have been vetted by Kerry and his campaign. Kerry has interviewed Gephardt and Sen. Bob Graham of Florida.
Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, in town to address the Democratic Leadership Council, said during the day that he had not talked to Kerry about the vice presidency and his extensive business holdings were not being reviewed by the Kerry campaign.