That's the Ticket

updated 07/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/19/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The little girl's voice on the line was not exactly what she expected—but the message delivered was just what Elizabeth Edwards had desired. As the wife of one of a handful of top contenders to be Democrat John Kerry's vice presidential running mate, Elizabeth was waiting anxiously by her phone in Raleigh, N.C., early on the morning of July 6 for her husband to call. When he did, however, John turned over the phone to the couple's 6-year-old daughter Emma Claire, who blurted out the words, "Senator Kerry picked Daddy!" And no sooner had Emma spilled the beans than her little brother Jack grabbed the receiver to make an important announcement of his own: "Mommy, I learned to swim above the water!"

Within a couple of hours, the news—John Edwards's news, that is—was official. Capping a top-secret, four-month search, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry announced he had chosen Edwards, 51, a senator from North Carolina—and former rival for the Democratic nomination—to join his quest for the White House. "That's what we need—someone who can swim above the water," joked Kerry's wife, Teresa, as the two couples prepared for an intimate get-to-know-you dinner later that night at her farm outside Pittsburgh. Added Edwards with a laugh: "This is an absolutely great day."

In the world beyond, the political jousting had already begun. Striking within minutes of the announcement, Republican operatives tagged Edwards as an inexperienced lawmaker who could claim little in the way of success, or even action, during his single term as a senator in Washington. Democrats, for their part, praised Edwards's energy—he helped raise $2 million for the Kerry campaign before he was even tapped—and hope the son of a Carolina mill worker will add regional appeal to the ticket. "He brings grits," says political consultant Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore's campaign in 2000. "Here's a guy who has a southern accent but can stop at every truck stop in the country and communicate with average workers."

Edwards, a multimillionaire trial lawyer before he went into politics, comes to the race toughened by personal tragedy. In 1996 his 16-year-old son Wade was killed in a car accident. In response to their loss, Elizabeth, also a lawyer, quit her job and, at 48, gave birth to Emma Claire and, later, Jack, now 4. After confronting that pain, friends say he is ready for anything. "What he brings is a real sense of what life is like for people outside of Washington," says Princeton, N.J., attorney Glenn Bergenfield. "He's genetically engineered to do this."

Bob Meadows. Jane Sims Podesta in Pittsburgh, Linda Trischitta in Miami and Makeba Scott Hunter in Washington, D.C.

From Our Partners