OKLAHOMA CITY – With his up-by-the-bootstraps biography and Carolina drawl, John Edwards (search) is working to advance John Kerry's (search) presidential candidacy in regions where the Massachusetts senator of privilege may need help connecting with voters.
Edwards has spent much of his time since joining the Democratic ticket last month in a Southern swath long dominated by Republicans and conservative rural Midwestern towns, reas where his populist message and emphasis on middle-class values — not to mention his background — are familiar.
The campaign hopes that sending Kerry's personable running mate into GOP bastions will sway disgruntled Republicans and undecided voters and, possibly, give Democrats an edge during an election that's expected to be very close.
If nothing else, Democratic and Republican strategists say, Edwards' presence in traditional GOP areas could force President Bush to spend time and money defending his turf, thereby siphoning resources that could go into more competitive states.
Peter Scher (search), Edwards' campaign manager, noted that the North Carolina senator is campaigning across many battleground states — and in Democratic strongholds — as well. "There's a role that he can play in virtually every part of the country and every demographic, and we're going to use that," Scher said.
This week, for example, Edwards traveled throughout rural Wisconsin and overnighted in Democratic-strong northeast Ohio before hitting GOP-leaning Oklahoma and ultra-competitive New Mexico. He rounds out the week with stops in Colorado and Missouri, two other battlegrounds.
Still, Scher acknowledged that Edwards can be particularly effective in the South and rural Midwestern areas because, Scher said, he appeals to a broad range of voters who see him as reflecting middle-class America.
"There's an opportunity there," Scher said, "to validate John Kerry and John Kerry's values."
So, Edwards — who opposed Kerry during the Democratic primary early this year — tramps from places like Memphis, Tenn., and Fort Smith, Ark., to Oshkosh, Wis., and Springfield, Mo., praising Kerry's proposals on jobs, health care, tax cuts and rural issues before crowds numbering in the thousands.
Aides believe it's in towns like these where a blessing by Edwards — a son of both a mill worker and the South who worked his way up to become a multimillionaire trial lawyer — could give credibility to the candidacy of Kerry, a U.S. senator from the liberal Northeast who grew up with wealth and an Ivy League education.
At each stop, Edwards tells crowds: "I know John Kerry. John Kerry will fight for you."
In many ways, Edwards' role has been typical for a vice presidential running mate.
He courts die-hard Democrats at fund-raisers even in GOP-leaning states like Oklahoma, where an event Wednesday night brought in $500,000 for the Democratic National Committee. A day earlier, Edwards pulled in $750,000 in Cleveland.
Occasionally, Edwards detours to other noncompetitive states such as North Dakota to appear with Democrats up for re-election. In those cases, he usually goes to cities whose media markets bleed into neighboring states that are in play this year.
Edwards steps in when Kerry takes a break from campaigning, filling in for the No. 1 on the ticket with the campaign's message of the day. And he performs a function that every other vice presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1954 has executed.
"Edwards is playing a perfectly legitimate and long-honored role as defender of the candidate and also an attack dog on the opposition," said Paul Light, a New York University professor who wrote a book about the vice presidency.
That's been on display this week with Edwards praising Kerry's Vietnam war service and accusing Bush of being behind the "smears and lies" the campaign says are being promulgated by an anti-Kerry group of Vietnam veterans.
But Kerry-Edwards campaign aides say Edwards' role goes beyond the traditional.
He's been the ticket's main voice on several issues, such as when contentious new overtime rules took effect and on the anniversary of the Bush administration's stem cell research policy. And he's been in three of the campaign's TV ads, unusual for a vice presidential candidate.
However, it's clear where his emphasis lies. Along with daylong tours of rural Iowa, Missouri and Wisconsin, this month's schedule included stops in GOP-leaning Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Louisiana.
"Edwards is kind of a familiar face with a familiar accent and a familiar story," Light said. "That's reassuring to some point to voters who may not be entirely comfortable with Kerry."