Since John Kerry revealed John Edwards as his choice for running mate, a new enthusiasm has been pumped into the Democrats' presidential campaign. Edwards brings the populist appeal and charisma that Kerry seems to lack. Edwards, in the "two Americas" speeches of his primary campaign, articulated eloquently the domestic issue on which the election could well turn: the widening gap between rich and poor in America.

Heretofore, Kerry seems to have risen or fallen in the polls depending solely on President Bush's fortunes or misfortunes rather than on any dynamic of his own. John Kerry's qualities might well make him a fine president and his presidency a highly successful one. Unlike Bush, Kerry does "do nuance," possessing a political acuity that can be critical in foreign affairs, but which has been so lacking in the present administration. But such skills are easily maligned as indecision or waffling and do not serve him particularly well as a candidate. It would not be the first time in American history that the qualifications for doing the job stood in the way of getting the job.

John Edwards, the Democrats hope, will supply an emotional charge missing till now but needed to energize the campaign. He does have passion, as well as a trial lawyer's forensic skills.

However, once elected, the vice-presidential candidate becomes a potential president, and he must be weighed by voters with that in mind. John Edwards has served one term in the U.S. Senate and has little actual experience in national-security affairs and foreign policy -- a seemingly critical requirement, post 9/11. This is an apparent weakness Bush and the Republicans are working mightily to exploit.

But they already are learning that Edwards can be a two-edged sword -- without a hilt. However they pick it up, they are bound to cut themselves. When asked how the North Carolina senator would compare with Vice President Dick Cheney, President Bush snapped, "Dick Cheney can be president," to which a caller to CNN quipped, "That ought to be on every Democratic poster." It probably soon will be, on many at least. The Republicans pretend to be gleeful about the prospects of a Cheney/Edwards debate. But are they, really?

Actually, Edwards currently is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and was pushing to tighten U.S. security against terrorism even before 9/11 -- efforts that got nowhere in a Republican-dominated Congress. Should tragedy suddenly put him in the Oval Office, he would begin with at least as much national-security experience as four of the past five presidents and arguably more experience than former Texas Gov. George W. Bush possessed when he was inaugurated. That's one sharp edge the GOP would do well to keep in mind.

"Experience" is itself a volatile concept -- a bipolar word, so to speak. It can be a necessary qualification for a job or a reason for dismissal. Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense, has had ample national-security experience.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has had lots of experience, having previously been defense secretary as well as White House chief of staff and ambassador to NATO. Secretary of State Colin Powell, of course, had been chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Indeed, the president's entire war cabinet is quite deep in experience.

You would have thought that people so experienced in military matters would have ensured that their Iraq war plans included the wherewithal to secure their objective once they had taken it -- a precaution the greenest second lieutenant would know to take. You might have assumed that such experienced people would have thoroughly planned for the occupation, studying Iraqi history and society and anticipating likely postwar problems.

But, in fact, all that experience produced an Iraq occupation of stunning, blood-drenched incompetence -- costing lives and who will ever know how many millions or even billions of dollars. That's been some experience!

If I were giving advice to Mr. Bush and the Republicans, it might be to avoid the double-edged issue of experience altogether.


Write to Walter Cronkite c/o King Features Syndicate, 888 Seventh Ave., New York, NY 10019, or e-mail him at mail(at)cronkitecolumn.com.

(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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