Day 1 of the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Day 1 of the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Day 1 of the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
July 8 2004 7:07 PM

And They're Off

Day 1 of the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.—John Kerry and John Edwards still believe in a place called Hope. And its sister city, Optimism. They also swear by a town called Opportunity, a village called Values, a burgh called Responsibility, and a couple of lakes called Family and Faith. But really, it's mostly Hope and Optimism.

What kind of places are Hope and Optimism? Strong. Strong and American. Strong and American and middle-class. They don't do a lot of fighting against powerful interests, which leads some to speculate that Bob Shrum doesn't live in either place. But the American people will live in one, if not both, if Kerry and Edwards are elected. They'll probably live in Optimism first because Hope apparently needs to be restored.

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That was pretty much the message during the first few hours of the germinal Kerry-Edwards campaign, which launched with a Wednesday morning photo-op at the Heinz farm near Pittsburgh and continued with an afternoon rally in Cleveland. It wasn't the entire message because this was also the Stronger Here at Home and Respected Around the World tour. But the emphasis on hope and optimism, or at least on using the words hope and optimism a lot, was noteworthy because Edwards, the new man on the ticket, made his name in the primaries as Mr. Optimism. His political action committee even bore the ridiculous name New American Optimists.

In Cleveland, the running mate sums up the campaign's new message with a phrase so nonsensical I can't believe it when I hear him repeat it later in Dayton, Ohio, and again here in Florida. He and Kerry embrace "the politics of hope, the politics of what's possible because this is America, where everything is possible," he proclaims.

Let's get this straight. This campaign is about what's possible. In America, everything is possible. Ergo, this campaign is about everything. Which means it's about nothing.

For the first few hours of the Kerry-Edwards campaign, the two candidates do their best to make it seem like it, anyway. The Cleveland kickoff event is particularly inauspicious. Edwards, normally sure on the stump, stumbles on several occasions, declaring incoherently at one point: "With John Kerry as president of the United States, no young American will ever go to war needlessly because America has decided to go to war." At another moment, Edwards assures the crowd of Kerry: "He will lead this country to the place that it can go." Teresa Heinz-Kerry misfires, too, when she notes that she's from nearby Pittsburgh and gets booed. (Must be an AFC North thing.) Good-naturedly booed, but still—the only other boos from the crowds for the rest of the day are reserved for President Bush and Vice President Cheney.

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By the time we reach Dayton, around 5 p.m., things start to improve. Kerry and Edwards have worked out some of the kinks in their rally rituals, and they seem more energetic, more natural, and less tired. Kerry's jokes even start to seem funnier, at least within the confines of the quaint "dad humor" that Kerry practices. He draws guffaws with a joke he trots out at each stop: "We think this is a dream ticket. We've got better vision, we've got better ideas, we've got real plans, we've got a better sense of what's happening to America. And we've got better hair." Later, he declares that an 13th-century Ohio Indian tribe with a medicine man "had a better health-care plan than this administration." And at the day's last stop, Kerry runs though the similarities between him and Edwards: "He's a lawyer. I'm a lawyer. His name is John. My name is John. He was named People magazine's sexiest person of the year. I read People magazine."

The evening's final event boasts the best anti-Kerry/Edwards sign of the day ("Flush the Johns"), but it's also the day's best event by far. The hall is packed with angry Florida Democrats, and Kerry kicks things off by stoking their fury: "Thank you, Florida, where this time not only does every vote count, but every vote's gonna be counted."

More important, though, the event reveals a secret benefit—at least it was a secret to me—to Kerry's decision to select Edwards as his running mate: Elizabeth Edwards is from Florida. "I'm a native Floridian," born in Jacksonville, she tells the crowd, which cheers wildly. Her parents married in Pensacola and now live in Sarasota. Her sister lives in Bradenton. "My aunts and uncles live all over the state," she concludes. "Don't you embarrass me in front of my family."

It's not the first time in the day that Edwards' family seems to be paying as many dividends as the man himself. In the morning and early afternoon, the only person who brings a jolt of boyish energy and youthful enthusiasm to the campaign is 4-year-old Jack Edwards, who captivates voters and press alike. Six-year-old Emma Claire, with her pink backpack, is a hit, too. The idea that Bill and Hillary Clinton were "two for the price of one" was controversial. But what about four for the price of two?