WASHINGTON — The beleaguered U.S. textile industry Tuesday got a boost to its argument over jobs when Sen. John Kerry selected as his running mate North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, seen as somewhat of a protectionist.

This story first appeared in the July 7, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Edwards, the son of a textile mill supervisor, pushed the industry’s plight hard in his bid to become the party’s nominee, a cause that has been taken up by Kerry on the stump. One of Kerry’s key campaign cries is the loss of some 3 million jobs, mostly in manufacturing, since President Bush took office in 2001.

“This is a fight to create jobs in America,” Kerry said in making his running mate pick at a rally in Pittsburgh, during which he called Edwards “a champion of middle-class America.”

In addition to the dozen or so states considered a toss-up between Kerry and Bush, having Edwards as a running mate “begins to put back into play some states that maybe the Bush campaign thought were safe, with North Carolina topping the list,” said Augustine Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, which has textile mill members in the state affected by import competition.

“Edwards did make manufacturing jobs and trade a centerpiece of his primary campaign,” Tantillo said.

As Kerry’s former rival, Edwards — who won only the South Carolina primary before conceding to Kerry — decried the uneven effects of free-trade pacts and was the only candidate to call for more aggressive use of quotas to curb China’s escalating apparel and textile imports. The quota system is set to become extinct on Jan. 1, although the U.S. has the right to impose safeguard quotas on categories it deems threatened by Chinese imports.

Kerry’s take on trade has been more moderate, and his advisers have argued that his message of fairness in trade pacts is in keeping with that of former Democratic President Bill Clinton, on whose watch the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted and China was granted permanent normal trade relations status.

The apparel and textile union UNITE was the only industrial union to back Edwards during the primary, and its president, Bruce Raynor, called picking Edwards as a running mate “a tremendous boon for the Southeastern textile industry and its workers.”

Bush swept the South in the 2000 election, and if Kerry is able to pick up one of the 11 Southern states, a Democratic victory would be in closer reach, said University of South Carolina political science professor Blease Graham.

Otherwise, if Bush maintains his hold on the predominantly Republican South, the President would only need to get a third of the electoral votes elsewhere to keep the White House for a second term.

“At one level, Edwards brings enthusiasm and a kind of a complement to Kerry’s aloofness and stiffness,” Graham said. “Just personality-wise. Edwards is very different. He’s very positive, very upbeat. He has almost a Hollywood-style quality that draws people out, gets people interested in what he has to say.”

For that reason and his homespun image, Graham cited Florida — the deciding state in 2000 — as possibly where the 51-year-old Edwards could tilt a southern state in favor of Kerry. In such a contested state, “Edwards’ addition may be the one extra thing that would make the Democratic ticket victorious.”

For their part, retailers and wholesale importers debated how Edwards might now handle the issue of trade and its impact on U.S. manufacturing.

Kevin Burke, president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, said he expects Edwards’ stance on trade to moderate, since Kerry is working hard to cast off the protectionist label slapped on him by the Bush camp.

“If Kerry says, ‘Turn down the rhetoric,’ Edwards will do that,” Burke said.

In Edwards, Kerry “gets a very energetic, articulate person,” said Burke, who argued that Edwards’ flare for stump speeches and empathy with the working class has its limits. “Edwards is going to have to establish himself as a viable national candidate now.”

Erik Autor, vice president and international trade counsel with the National Retail Federation, questioned whether international trade will even be a dominant issue in the campaign.

He said retailers are “pretty concerned about Edwards’ protectionist message.” However, Autor said during the primary season, when Edwards gained a lot of attention in the South as a native son, “I’m not so sure his appeal was his protectionist message. It might have been more his dynamism.”

According to Associated Press exit polls taken during the Democratic primary season, Edwards topped Kerry in his appeal among Republicans and was strong among independent voters.

The Bush-Cheney camp was quick with its detraction of Edwards, whom a Republican National Committee spokeswoman criticized for being liberal and inexperienced politically as a one-term senator. The GOP also questioned Edwards’ career as a personal injury attorney. Limiting damage awards is a core GOP issue.

“Sen. Edwards delivers a pessimistic message, as John Kerry does, but he does it with a drawl and a smile,” said the RNC spokeswoman, who also singled out both men for voting against the President’s almost $3 trillion in tax cuts.

Bush touts the cuts as spurring economic recovery, including recent months of job gains and other economic indicators. Kerry argues that the tax cuts have perilously deepened the national debt and that the economic gains aren’t solid.

Edwards didn’t make a public appearance after the announcement, only issuing a statement that he was “humbled” to be picked “and thrilled to accept it.” He was spotted in the afternoon leaving his Georgetown home with his wife, Elizabeth, and three children to fly to Pittsburgh for dinner with Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Today, the running mates head to Ohio, a key battleground state.