Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Republicans Move Fast to Make Experience of Edwards an Issue


Republicans Move Fast to Make Experience of Edwards an Issue

WASHINGTON, July 7 - At President Bush's first campaign stop in North Carolina on Wednesday morning, he was asked how Vice President Dick Cheney stacked up against the new Democratic vice-presidential candidate who, the president was told, is already being described as "charming, engaging, a nimble campaigner, a populist and even sexy."

Mr. Bush was ready with a one-liner: "Dick Cheney can be president."

With that sharp retort, Mr. Bush showed how aggressively Republicans were moving to expose what party leaders view as Senator John Edwards's greatest vulnerability: his lack of experience.

Hoping to offset what they acknowledge is the fresh-faced political appeal of Mr. Edwards, Republicans are trying to make the case that in a dangerous new world, filled with marauding terrorists and nations racing to go nuclear, Mr. Edwards is not ready to step into the Oval Office should events require. They argue that he does not even have a full Senate term under his belt, that he was responsible for no significant legislation, and that his service on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which Democrats say amounts to far more experience than many candidates have had, hardly amounts to adequate preparation.

"He may have left some footprints on the beaches of North Carolina, but you couldn't find any on the floor of the Senate," said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the No. 2 Republican, who said he could not "think of a single thing" memorable about Mr. Edwards's Senate service.

In fact, Mr. Edwards's record indicates he is neither the neophyte that the Republicans portray him to be nor the kind of deeply engaged thinker about terrorism and United States security that one might envision after listening to the conference calls of the campaign of Senator John Kerry. Mr. Edward spent significant time on security issues before and after Sept. 11, 2001, but by that time he was already contemplating running for president, an effort that kept him away from Capitol Hill.

Before he dropped out of the race earlier this year, Mr. Edwards won praise when he gave a speech that focused on how to create a "global nuclear compact" that would deal with nations abusing provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to build nuclear weapons. It paved the way for a similar set of proposals Mr. Kerry made only recently.

What remains to be seen, however, is how well Mr. Edwards can integrate national security issues, when he is away from his speechwriters, when there are no briefing books. When The New York Times was interviewing the Democratic hopefuls on foreign policy early this year, Mr. Edwards was the only one of the major candidates who did not sit down for a detailed discussion. He cited scheduling pressures.

On Wednesday, Democrats were ready for the critique that their candidate was a lightweight on national security, and they wasted no time opening a counteroffensive. They asserted that Mr. Edwards's five years in the Senate stacked up nicely with the amount of time Mr. Bush himself served as governor of Texas - his first public office - before moving to the Oval Office and that he is just as prepared. Within hours of the announcement of Mr. Edwards's selection on Tuesday, the Kerry campaign was already offering old Democratic foreign policy hands to testify to the candidate's bona fides as a quick learner, if not a long time player.

"His proliferation speech was probably the best foreign policy speech of any candidate during the primaries," Samuel R. Berger, the national security adviser under President Bill Clinton, said

Tuesday. "And when 9-11 came along, he probably knew more about the terror issues than most members of the Intelligence Committee."

On Capitol Hill, that theme was echoed with a jab at President Bush. "John Edwards has a lot more Washington experience than George Bush had four years ago," said the Senate Democratic leader, Tom Daschle of South Dakota. "But secondly, it isn't the length of experience in any case, it's the quality of the experience." Moreover, they argue, Mr. Kerry's depth of experience makes it far less important that his running mate do for him what Mr. Cheney did for Mr. Bush.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts and a close ally of Mr. Kerry, noted that his brother, John F. Kennedy, fell just short of being chosen as vice president in 1956 with only four years in the Senate to his credit and was elected president at age 43 in 1960.

"The most important qualities are character and judgment and I think he has demonstrated those here in the Senate and clearly over the course of his life," said Mr. Kennedy.

But Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi and a fellow panel member on the Intelligence Committee, said that Democrats would be making a mistake if they were planning to use Mr. Edwards's service on the committee as evidence that he is now ready to participate in Oval Office decision-making.

"The very idea they would maintain that being on the Intelligence Committee for four years would qualify him in a national security-foreign policy sense is ridiculous," Mr. Lott said. "That is very slim reed."

Republicans are also assailing Mr. Edwards, a former trial lawyer, for his opposition to limiting liability suits, a favorite cause of Mr. Bush and many business organizations. But it is the experience issue, they are convinced, that has the broader political impact. A senior White House official, who would not speak on the record, said that Mr. Bush's sharp comment on Wednesday morning was an effort to remind Mr. Kerry of his own criteria for a vice president. "Kerry said the primary test is whether he is experienced enough to do the job of president," the official said. "That is the very thing that he took issue with in the case of Edwards and Edwards fails the senator's own test."

But just in case the president's own words were not enough, on Wednesday afternoon the Bush campaign issued a roundup of quotations and commentary focusing on Mr. Edwards's experience.

"I think it is a problem," said Charlie Black, a Republican strategist, about Mr. Edwards's public service résumé. "What it shows is that Kerry picked the guy because of his campaigning ability rather than his experience and his ability to govern. That just confirms what people think, that Kerry is a political opportunist rather than a political leader."

Senator John Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, said he believed the choice also put a spotlight on what he viewed as Mr. Kerry's own lackluster Senate record. "Now you have two people with a total of 25 years in the Senate with no substantial legislation," he said.

Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster, agreed with Republicans that voters would set a higher standard for competence and experience in this election, given terrorism and the war in Iraq. But he said Mr. Kerry had already cleared that hurdle on the basis of his own qualifications.

"Unlike George W. Bush, who needed a Cheney, unlike Carter who needed a Mondale, unlike Clinton who needed a Gore, and unlike Reagan who needed a Bush, Kerry has the freedom to add to his ticket in terms of linkage with the voters," Mr. Hart said.

Some of Mr. Edwards's Democratic colleagues on the Intelligence Committee also rejected the assertion that he did not have the credentials for the job. Senator Ron Wyden, Democrat of Oregon, said he sat two seats away from Mr. Edwards and recalled that he was among the first to articulate flaws he saw in intelligence gathering.