President Bush on Wednesday curtly dismissed freshman Sen. John Edwards' credentials to be vice president while Democratic challenger John Kerry and his running mate rallied voters in battleground states. "Dick Cheney can be president," Bush declared, and Kerry suggested that was part of the problem.
A day after he welcomed Edwards to the presidential campaign, Bush visited Edwards' hometown of Raleigh, N.C., to criticize the North Carolina senator's role in holding up judicial appointments. The president said he was unconcerned about the potential of Edwards to help carry states in the South, a GOP bastion.
"When they go to the polls to vote for president, they'll understand the senator from Massachusetts doesn't share their values," Bush said. "I'm going to carry the South because the people understand that they share - we share values."
During a trip scheduled before Kerry picked Edwards, Bush said Edwards and other Senate Democrats obstruct the work of the federal judiciary by refusing to fill judgeships. He said he told three nominees in a private meeting, "You're being hung out by a handful of United States senators."
A reporter noted that Edwards was being described as "charming, engaging, a nimble campaigner, a populist and even sexy" and asked, "How does he stack up against Dick Cheney?" Bush didn't hesitate: "Dick Cheney can be president. Next?"
Kerry struck back hours later at a rally in Dayton, Ohio.
"He doesn't have a record to run on, he's just got a record to run away from, and he's attacking everyone," Kerry said of Bush. He said Edwards has "more experience than George Bush and better judgment than ... when he became president."
Bush "was right that Dick Cheney was ready to take over on day one, and he did and has been ever since, folks, and that's what we have got to change," Kerry said.
Earlier, Kerry's campaign said Bush was "hitting the panic button." "The fact that the president of the United States is personally taking swipes at the Kerry-Edwards ticket a mere day after it was announced speaks volumes," the campaign said in a statement. "It's just disappointing that the president of the United States would stoop to this kind of political bickering."
Kerry, who himself once suggested his younger Senate colleague lacked the experience to be president, declared that Edwards was "ready to help lead America." He and Edwards were stumping together for the first time as running mates in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, showcasing their newfound camaraderie and putting aside past differences.
"America can do better," an upbeat Kerry said at a lakefront rally in Cleveland as he and Edwards and their families stood in a light rain under a banner declaring "A New Team for a New America."
"I want you to know we think this is a dream ticket. We've got better vision. We've got better ideas. We've got real plans. We've got a better sense of what's happening to America," Kerry said.
"And," Kerry added with a grin, "We've got better hair. I'll tell you, that goes a long way."
Kerry used the "better hair" line three times Tuesday and later told reporters that his wife, Teresa, had teased him about it. "Teresa turned and said to me, 'You just lost the bald vote,'" Kerry said, laughing.
For his part, Edwards told thousands of cheering Ohio supporters, "We're going to have a great time."
From the Cleveland mayor's office, Kerry and Edwards spoke by video conference to the National Education Association's annual meeting in Washington. Kerry had canceled a speech to the union on Tuesday, the day Edwards joined the ticket. "Something came up folks, I know you understand," said Kerry.
The two candidates reprised their performances at a rally in Dayton, Ohio, before heading to Florida as part of a four-day joint campaign trip that ends Saturday in Raleigh. The disputed 2000 election was decided in Florida by 537 votes. Bush narrowly won Ohio and lost Pennsylvania.
Speaking late Wednesday at a rally in St. Petersburg, Fla., Kerry told supporters, "This time not only every vote will count, but every vote will be counted," a reference to the 2000 Florida recount.
Polling suggests people are viewing Kerry's first big decision favorably. Two-thirds, 64 percent, in a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll taken Tuesday night thought the choice of Edwards was excellent or good. Nine in 10 Democrats, and seven in 10 of all voters, said they were satisfied or enthusiastic about the Edwards pick, according to a CBS News poll.
Earlier, both families posed for pictures on the Kerrys' lush 88-acre estate in suburban Pittsburgh.
"We're excited," Kerry said. Once critical of the former trial lawyer's experience, Kerry pronounced Edwards "ready for this job. He's ready to help lead America. He's a person of compassion and conviction, of strength."
Edwards, who made the economy and restoration of lost jobs the center of his unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination, is a man who has spent much of his life "making things better for people who have been hurt," Kerry said.
The son of a Carolina textile mill worker, Edwards, 51, called Kerry, 60, "the kind of man we grew up looking up to, respecting, somebody who believed in faith and family and responsibility, and having everybody get a chance to do what they're capable of doing, not just a few."
"This campaign is about the future and is about restoring hope," Edwards said.
On the Net:
Bush campaign: http://www.georgewbush.com
Kerry campaign: http://www.johnkerry.com