Edwards Donors Begging Kerry: Hire John-Boy

Nine days after John Edwards bowed out of the Presidential race, effectively ceding the Democratic nomination to John Kerry, the North Carolina Senator summoned 150 of his top contributors to the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, D.C., for an urgent cocktail party. The March 11 event was designed to introduce Edwards donors to Mr. Kerry-a ceremonial transfer of loyalty and resources to the presumptive nominee. Instead, it turned into a rally for the runner-up, as some of Mr. Edwards’ donors launched a campaign to persuade Mr. Kerry to pick his Senate colleague as the party’s Vice Presidential nominee.

In fact, some of Mr. Edwards’ donors are adamant on the subject: They’ve told Mr. Kerry that if he wants all “150 percent” of their support, he ought to put Mr. Edwards on the ticket. “I think the Edwards people genuinely feel that he would be the preferential Vice Presidential person on the ticket,” said Laura Ross, the former chair of the Women’s Leadership Forum and one of Mr. Edwards’ leading fund-raisers, describing the events at the St. Regis. “So a few of them made the message clear: We support you, of course, but if you want to see our firepower, put Edwards on the ticket.”

That firepower packs quite a wallop. Before and during the primaries, the Senator’s campaign-finance committee established itself as a formidable machine, one that helped make Mr. Edwards a serious contender. In the end, the Edwards campaign didn’t achieve the fund-raising heights of either the Howard Dean or Kerry campaigns, but it still came in a close and respectable third. It brought in a solid chunk of this money-approximately $4 million-during the final six-week face-off against Mr. Kerry.

However, such fund-raising prowess does not necessarily trump other, more conventional considerations in choosing a running mate. By traditional standards, Mr. Edwards might seem an unlikely choice for Mr. Kerry. For example, because Mr. Kerry is a Senator himself, many insiders think he should reach out to a Democratic governor (the last all-Senate ticket to win the White House was John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1960).

What’s more, Mr. Edwards’ home state, North Carolina, is not one of the 13 mighty swing states, and his solitary primary victory in South Carolina does little to bolster the notion that he has regional appeal.

Some of Mr. Edwards’ supporters, however, are making an aggressive case for their man, who chose not to run for re-election to the Senate this year. They argue that his positive message, Clinton-style stumping skills, crossover popularity and Southern roots-not to mention the fact that he was the last legitimate challenger standing-make him the most formidable contender.

And they are not shy about making their case, as the March 11 event demonstrated.

Mr. Kerry opened the proceedings by joking that the room seemed to be filled with people who “want to be federal judges,” a reference to the number of trial lawyers who supported one of their own, Mr. Edwards. Then, during a question-and-answer session, some of those would-be judges could no longer contain themselves. They took advantage of their access to the nominee to lobby on behalf of Mr. Edwards. “A few people stood up and said [to Senator Kerry]: ‘Congratulations. We will do whatever we can to help you. But you should know that we just love this guy [Mr. Edwards], and we would be thrilled if you put him on the ticket,” said one member of Mr. Edwards’ finance committee.

Other donors were even less subtle. “This one man from Louisiana said, ‘Now look, I’ll work for you-of course I’ll work for a Democrat-but if you put Edwards on the ticket, I’ll raise you a million dollars by Sunday,'” recalled Ms. Ross (who is herself raising money for Mr. Kerry). “The way a lot of people put it, it was the difference between ‘Yeah, we’re behind you’ and ‘We’re really behind you.'”

One lawyer from Philadelphia even drafted a letter to Mr. Kerry, describing in passionate detail how he and his wife had given up their law practice to work for Mr. Edwards. According to Ms. Ross, the letter concluded: “With him not on the ticket, certainly we’re going to be behind Kerry, but we’re not going to give up our lives, we’re not going to not see our families anymore.”

Polite Responses

Mr. Kerry took these in stride, according to one source, saying that his campaign had set up a process for selecting his running mate, but that he would consider the Edwards supporters’ suggestions. (When asked for a formal response, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said, “John Edwards ran a very successful and effective campaign, and I think we want to continue working together to defeat George Bush …. “)

As for Mr. Edwards, sources described his reaction as “subtle”-much like that of his spokeswoman, Kimberly Ruby, who parried the issue by saying, “It’s natural for Senator Edwards’ supporters to promote him, but the purpose of that meeting was to raise money for John Kerry. Senator Edwards wants to do everything he can to help Senator Kerry win in November.”

Mr. Edwards has been urging his top-tier donors to direct their energy and resources to Mr. Kerry, and many have said they are doing just that. They have agreed to let Mr. Edwards present the money they raise to Mr. Kerry, effectively making him the donor of donors. It’s a brilliant way for Mr. Edwards to demonstrate both his independence and his loyalty to Mr. Kerry, and it allows his fund-raisers to “show a united front,” in the words of one donor who asked not to be identified.

But it’s also rather unusual.

“I don’t think the Clark fund-raisers are doing this,” said Mark Benoit, who ran Wesley Clark’s New York State campaign. “I mean, they’re all working for Kerry.”

Indeed, while many high rollers from other campaigns seem to have been absorbed into the larger Kerry apparatus, many of Mr. Edwards’ fund-raisers remain staunchly identified with their candidate, even as they raise money for Mr. Kerry. They still talk to Mr. Edwards on a regular basis, and they are in ready touch with his former staffers, not to mention each other. A number have also taken advantage of their clout to reach out to well-placed Kerry people-from professional fund-raisers to finance-committee members to members of the Democratic National Committee-to make the case for Mr. Edwards’ place on the national ticket.

So far, they haven’t received much confirmation for their efforts. “You sort of get told, ‘John Kerry is going to go through a very deliberate process, and he is going to try to figure it out and do the right thing,'” said an insider who asked to remain anonymous. “Kerry is going to do what he thinks is going to win him the election.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Edward’s fund-raisers keep hoping and, yes, pleading whenever the moment seems ripe.

“John Edwards is as upbeat and optimistic about John Kerry as he was about himself,” said Richard Thaler, an investment banker and member of the Democratic Leadership Council. “We think Kerry could benefit from Edwards on the ticket.”