America - Andrew Stephen on John Edwards, the alleged liberal

John Edwards, Kerry's choice as running mate, voted against the Iraq war, but is centrist to the cor

Wait for it. Lie down if you're feeling fragile. Senator John Edwards, John Kerry's choice as vice-presidential running mate, is - I can hardly get the words out - "a committed liberal". Cripes! This is on the authority of no less a figure than Marc Racicot, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Within 30 minutes of Kerry's announcement in Pittsburgh last Tuesday, the RNC was ready and waiting with no fewer than 28 pages, entitled "Who is John Edwards?". The document described Edwards as a phoney and "a disingenuous, unaccomplished liberal".

Showing breathtaking chutzpah, the Bush-Cheney campaign immediately started running television ads featuring John McCain, "John Kerry's first choice for a vice-presidential running mate". The McCain speech featured in the ad is positively cringe-making, especially as McCain actually hates George W Bush as much as anyone does. He must have felt like holding his nose as he praised Bush with absurd hyperbole: "He has not wavered, he has not flinched from the hard choices . . . he deserves not only our support, but our admiration."

Phew! And we still have well over 100 days before election day. The Bush-Cheney lot are not hesitating to mobilise the country by fear: on the very day Edwards's name was announced, there was talk floated of an imminent Qaeda attack on the US. Cheney, over the 4 July weekend, described Kerry as being "on the left, out of the mainstream and out of touch with the conservative values of the heartland". I suppose our Dick is implying that he is somehow on the cutting edge of reality, what with his witty pronouncements on WMDs and the links between Iraq and al-Qaeda.

But back to Edwards. Disingenuous? I don't think that Edwards is any more disingenuous than any other politician, particularly if you consider the many dishonest statements from Bush and his cronies. Unaccomplished? This is silly nonsense, especially when you look at Bush's stunningly empty curriculum vitae: Edwards is the son of a millworker who went on to make tens of millions as a trial lawyer specialising in personal injury cases. Now a man of privilege, like Kerry, he lives in a multimillion-dollar home in Georgetown. He has at least three other houses around the country and is said to be worth $36m.

But liberal? That is a dirty word in US politics these days. It is true that Edwards voted against the Iraq war and the Patriot Act. He also has a relatively "liberal" voting record in the Senate - he has been there less than six years - but is much like any other blow-dried American politician: centrist to the core. Kerry himself, in announcing Edwards as his running mate, went so far as to describe him as a "champion for middle-class Americans". Edwards was the original, preferred candidate of the Democratic Leadership Council, the wing of the Democratic Party that championed Bill Clinton and brought us the Third Way. He supports the death penalty, unlike Kerry.

But Edwards is smiley, a prolific fundraiser, and good at upbeat political rhetoric; in this, he contrasts in style with Kerry, whose dour manner is a liability. Edwards has a sharp trial lawyer's mind, which should make the vice-presidential debates with our Dick a treat to watch. He is also 51, but looks at least a decade younger: Kerry is 60, but could be a decade older. Both men, interestingly, are married to older women - Edwards is four years younger than his lawyer wife Elizabeth, and Kerry five years younger than the wealthy Teresa Heinz Kerry. (I'm told that she is none too smitten with Edwards's brash ways.)

I went to take a look at Edwards's home on P Street here in Washington last Tuesday afternoon, and found the pavement opposite the house crammed with television crews in the 92 F heat. Satellite dishes and mobile television pylons were parked on all the corners, and the secret service already encamped; I pity some friends of mine who are neighbours, and who will now have to live with such huge media and security intrusion. Kerry, I should add, lives just a block away: a small world of affluence and privilege, of two rich white guys running together for office.

The ascension of Edwards will certainly give the Kerry ticket a bounce in the polls for at least a few days, and again at the Democratic convention in Boston later this month. However, history shows that the vice-presidential candidate rarely makes a significant difference to the election: Bush's father chose poor Dan Quayle to be his running mate, but still managed to get elected to the White House. Edwards is a man of much more substance than Quayle, and can only be a bonus for Kerry - who needs all the help he can get in connecting with voters.

Yet if Kerry and Edwards are the next president and vice-president, it will be not so much because they won the election: it will be because George W Bush lost it, spectacularly so.