Should Kerry have picked Vilsack?

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Oct. 27 2004 1:21 AM

Sticks Nix Veep Pick

John Edwards hasn't won rural voters.

Not a hit in the hinterlands?
Not a hit in the hinterlands?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla.—By most standards, John Edwards has been a solid running mate for John Kerry. He throttled Dick Cheney in the vice presidential debate (less sympathetic observers thought he at least held his own), he draws big and enthusiastic crowds, he gave a decent if not spectacular acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention, he's always on message, and he's committed no memorable gaffes or otherwise violated the Hippocratic oath of vice presidential nominees. He wasn't selected to win his home state of North Carolina, so it isn't fair for Democrats to be disappointed when the Tar Heel State stays in the Bush column, as it almost certainly will, a week from tonight. But Edwards partisans did expect him to help the Democratic ticket to appeal more to rural voters, and there's no evidence that he's managed to pull off that admittedly difficult feat. If Kerry loses a close election next week, the first second-guessing question has to be, Was John Edwards the right choice?

According to a poll released on Saturday by the Center for Rural Strategies, Kerry trails President Bush by 12 points, 53 to 41 (with a 4.4 percent margin of error), among rural voters in 17 battleground states. Four years ago, Al Gore lost those voters to Bush by a nearly identical margin, 11 points. No reasonable person expected Edwards to help Kerry actually win among rural voters, but it was hoped that he would help the ticket outperform Gore's number and reduce the margin to single digits. When Edwards was criticized for "disappearing" after the convention, the Kerry campaign explained that he had been dispatched to rural areas that were being ignored by the national media, and they assured everyone that he was wowing local media. Local voters seem to be another matter.

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During a Tuesday conference call that was set up to discuss how good the Kerry campaign feels about its chances to win the election, the one disappointment expressed by Joe Lockhart and Stan Greenberg was Kerry's performance in rural areas. "I think we recognize that rural voters have not come to us in the way that we had hoped for in this election," Lockhart said. Greenberg said the fact that rural voters were "stuck" was a big factor in why Iowa and New Mexico, states that were won by Gore, remain tossups.

A less exciting but more traditional vice-presidential pick might have served Kerry better by putting one of those states safely in his column. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson or Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack could have guaranteed their states' electoral votes for the Democrats. Perhaps even Arkansas' Wes Clark or one of Florida's two senators, Bob Graham and Bill Nelson, could have put their states away for Kerry.

None of those candidates would have generated the buzz that selecting Edwards did, and there are reasons to believe that each of them would have been truly bad choices. Maybe they all would have been crucified by Dick Cheney. But Vilsack, in particular, made Kerry's shortlist, along with Edwards and Dick Gephardt. If you're a Democrat looking at the electoral map, which would you rather have right now, a veep debate win or Iowa's seven electoral votes?

How I Voted: I didn't mean to abstain from Slate's "Show Us Your Ballots" exercise, but I missed the deadline. Here's my candidate: Kerry. I was ambivalent about the Iraq war before the invasion, and I ultimately decided that if you're ambivalent about war you should be against it. The president and this administration apparently feel otherwise. They've put the burden of proof on peace rather than war. Their disdain for the global institutions that have projected American power overseas for 60 years has undermined not just our country's hard-earned reputation and moral authority but our hard-earned might. Their disregard for the Geneva Conventions is shameful and a dangerous international precedent. On the domestic side, Kerry seems a little too eager to spend taxpayer dollars, but I take his pledges of—if not his instincts for—restraint as a reason for guarded optimism. More important, on that score, he can't be any worse than Bush. Besides, this is a one-issue election for me. I don't hate President Bush. I think he's well-intentioned and a good man. He's just not a good president.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.