ST. CHARLES, Mo. – As the No. 2 man on the Democratic ticket, John Edwards' (search) job is to stay on message, praising presidential candidate John Kerry (search) and going after Kerry's opponents. The vice presidential running mate is not to bring unwanted attention to the team.
It's a role that the North Carolina senator — an extremely disciplined campaigner — fills with ease, fitting the campaign's issue of the day into his broader pitch that with Kerry as president "tomorrow can be better than today."
A former trial lawyer, Edwards honed his ability to send a precise message in the courtroom, persuading juries to side with personal injury complainants for more than two decades. He transferred the discipline he learned there — and throughout his life as he rose from "a son of a millworker" to a multimillionaire lawyer — to the campaign trail with his own bid for the Democratic presidential nomination early this year.
"There's no question that John Edwards is a gifted communicator who knows how to make a point," said Timothy Walch, a vice presidential historian. "He's talking to the largest jury of his life."
When Edwards joined the ticket in July, "he was prepared for the scrutiny and pressure because he, himself, ran for the presidency. He was ready," said Walch, who is director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, and edited a book about the vice presidency. "There's no question that you would ask John Edwards now that he hasn't already answered."
During the primary race, Edwards struggled to distinguish himself from Kerry because both shared many of the same views. That, aides say, has made sticking to the party line natural for Edwards.
"When you believe it and you're focused on it, it's easier to be a much more disciplined candidate," said Peter Scher, Edwards' campaign manager and a veteran of 20 years working for vice presidential candidates.
Edwards attends about two or three rallies, town-hall meetings or other events daily on campaign swings that usually last about six days. Crowds are enthusiastic, often chanting his name and drowning him out with cheers. By almost a 2-1 margin, Americans have a favorable view of Edwards, recent polls show.
His ability to stay on message was on display last week as Kerry battled criticisms of his war record by a veterans' group that Democrats contend President Bush is behind. The president denies the charge.
With a reminder from campaign advisers to keep the heat on Bush, Edwards hit back at the start of every event from Oshkosh, Wis., to St. Charles, Mo., denouncing the claims as "smears" and "lies" perpetuated by the president.
Then, he'd quickly move on to other issues the campaign wanted to emphasize. On Monday, it was new overtime regulations taking effect that day. On Thursday, it was a new census report showing gains in the number of people in poverty and without health insurance.
Before long, Edwards would return to the campaign's core theme — "the issues that matter to Americans," jobs, health care, taxes, education. It's a version of his "two Americas" speech — the all-but-trademarked Democratic primary season monologue about an America divided by wealth.
Sometimes, when there are questions posed to him that appear to have come out of left field, Edwards uses the situation to his advantage.
In Golden, Colo., a young girl asked: "How can you make it so that the animals can be protected from poaching?"
"Good question. The same way that we can protect the quality of our air, the way we can protect the quality of our water," Edwards said without missing a beat and launching into an explanation of Kerry's determination to enforce environmental regulations.
And, he sometimes plays it safe with nuanced answers to pointed questions. At a town hall meeting in St. Charles, a man said he was tired of watching attack ads by Republicans and asked: "Can't we just go after them once in a while?"
Edwards' response: "Anyone who knows about John Kerry's history for the last 35 years knows that John Kerry's a fighter."