John Edwards and the No. 2 Slot

One reason people think John Edwards has native political talent is that he comes up with little ways to hit voters where they live without bruising anyone else too much in the process.

Consider his performance in Sunday night's debate in Milwaukee between the five remaining candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination. Edwards, the North Carolina senator, managed to make national news and tickle the Wisconsinites without costing himself too much goodwill with the man who may soon be his boss.

That man would be John Kerry, the Massachusetts senator now on cruise control for the nomination. Edwards needed to beard the lion, but avoid the kind of denunciatory screed that former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean issued last week — ripping Kerry for campaign donations from lobbyists.

Unlike Dean, Edwards still cares about his shot at the No. 2 slot on the ticket. And Edwards has positioned himself to be runner-up throughout this campaign, even as he denied any interest in it (as the unwritten rules demand).

At one point Sunday night, Edwards kidded Kerry about a prolix answer to a yes-or-no question. But more importantly, Edwards objected to Kerry's preening presumption that he was already the party champion against President George W. Bush.

"Not so fast, John Kerry," Edwards said, working his practiced grin and twinkle. "We've got an election here in Wisconsin Tuesday."

No one likes an arrogant frontrunner, especially not the voters of a state eager to play kingmaker. Wisconsin voters don't just want to ratify the decisions of Iowa and New Hampshire (and a dozen other leap-frogging interlopers that have moved ahead of the Badger State on the calendar). Wisconsin wants to matter for keeps, the way it once did.

A century ago, Wisconsin was one of the states that originated the idea of open primaries as an alternative to choosing convention delegates in closed party confabs (those infamous smoke-filled rooms). For decades, New Hampshire held the first primary in March and Wisconsin held the second on the first Tuesday in April.

The quintessential Wisconsin primary may have been in 1960, when it featured another Massachusetts senator with the initials JFK, John F. Kennedy. Wisconsin's was actually the first contested primary of the year (New Hampshire had attracted only Kennedy among the major contenders). In Wisconsin, Kennedy's rival was Hubert Humphrey, the senator from neighboring Minnesota who began with a strong advantage. But Kennedy rallied the state's substantial Catholic vote and did well enough among Protestants to win with 56 percent. Humphrey lingered into May but never beat Kennedy in another contested state.

Wisconsin provided strong support in 1968 for Eugene McCarthy, another Democratic senator from Minnesota, who was challenging incumbent Democratic President Lyndon Johnson as a protest against the Vietnam War. McCarthy's vote share nearly equaled JFK's, but it also came two days after Johnson had stunned the nation by withdrawing as a candidate for re-election.

Four years later, with the war still not over, Wisconsin gave a plurality of its primary vote to another anti-war candidate, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern. The winning share was less than 30 percent (Alabama's George Wallace was second with 22 percent), but it was enough to give McGovern his first win of the year, knock out previous frontrunner Edmund Muskie, the senator from Maine, and send McGovern on his way to the nomination.

Muskie's fate here has not been typical, however. Wisconsin has more often embraced front-runners and helped them thin the ranks of their rivals. In 1976, a narrow loss here dashed the hopes of Arizona Democrat Morris K. Udall and boosted Georgia's Jimmy Carter. Four years later the state backed the incumbent Carter in the primary, bitterly disappointing intraparty challengers Teddy Kennedy and Jerry Brown.

In a wrangle with the national party in 1984, Wisconsin Democrats had both a primary and a closed party caucus (the primary was won narrowly by Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, the caucuses by eventual nominee Walter Mondale, the former vice president from Minnesota). Since then the full primary has been restored, and frontrunners have prevailed.

A similar dynamic has held on the Republican side. The favorites won through the 1960s and 1970s, and the state GOP was unmoved by the entreaties of George H. W. Bush, who tried to stop Ronald Reagan's momentum here in 1980. As the frontrunner himself in 1988, Bush was already home free by the time Wisconsin held its primary. The same was true for him in 1992 and for Bob Dole in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2000.

Wisconsinites have never been happy about this vote-when-it's-over routine, craving a real contest and a decisive role. So they moved out of their traditional April niche and eventually hauled their primary date all the way into mid-February, the depths of winter in the upper Midwest. This seemed to be early enough to make a difference in 2004, especially after Dean's collapse created a void and suggested a nomination fight that could last into summer.

But the Dean collapse was followed immediately by a general move to Kerry, driven by the party faithful's sudden commitment to electability. When Edwards and retired Gen. Wesley Clark split the Southern vote on Feb. 3 and 10, Kerry became not just the Northern leader but the national leader. Now it will take an extraneous event or factor to stop him.

In the end, Wisconsin's enduring inclination to back a winner will outweigh its interest in making mavericks prosper. And that will be seen as a factor as Kerry adds one more trophy to the shelf on his way toward the nomination.

But before the Wisconsin folks went to the polls, Edwards found his opportunity to be on the side of their pride. That's why a lot of political professionals think he's the goods. And it's one more reason why he offers a Kerry ticket more than just regional balance.

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