Joe Biden says he has his eye on a dozen women as potential running mates, but those close to him believe the list of top prospects is likely far shorter as a deep vetting process gets underway to determine whether he needs to expand his circle of serious contenders.
If Biden has an early favorite or two – and several friends and longtime advisers are certain that he does – he isn’t saying so. He may listen to advice and recommendations, but he offers his thoughts to few people beyond his wife, Jill, and the leaders of his search committee.
Yet Biden has made no secret of the fact that his leading qualification is someone with unassailable credentials who is prepared to be president. And that, many Democrats close to Biden believe, has trimmed the roster of his serious options to fewer than five – for now, at least – as reviews begin into the backgrounds of former rivals and other possible candidates.
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The list may be even narrower because Biden is also looking for someone with whom he has a close personal connection – or believes he can easily build one.
Nearly two dozen friends, advisers and allies tell CNN that while Biden is not sharing specifics of his thinking, they believe loyalty is more important to him than virtually any other trait, along with experience, which is paramount given the daunting task of rebuilding the economy and trying to avoid a second calamitous coronavirus outbreak.
“You can’t underscore enough the importance he feels chemistry is,” said Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan governor and CNN contributor who has helped Biden prepare for debates since 2008. “He was such a tremendous vice president. He would love to have someone as loyal and on the same page as him – and someone who can govern right away.”
It was 12 years ago this month when Barack Obama first began considering Biden to join his ticket. One of the principal reasons, Obama told aides at the time, was that Biden had run for president himself, consistently performed well in primary debates and was tested on the national stage. Today, that same sentiment informs Biden’s thinking, several people close to him believe.
Sens. Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren all have proven themselves during the primary contest over the last year, demonstrating they can navigate the rigors of a tough campaign and are equipped for the demands of the vice presidency. They each bring different political, geographic and ideological strengths to the table.
But of the three, Warren has one steep hurdle entirely beyond her control.
If she became vice president, her replacement in Massachusetts would be selected by Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, which could tip the balance of power in the Senate. The state has relatively quick special election laws, between 145 to 160 days after a vacancy, but it could still upend Democratic control of the Senate for the opening months of a Biden presidency.
With Democrats increasingly hopeful about the chance of winning a Senate majority, this complication could give Biden a credible reason to take a pass on Warren, with whom he has had a tense relationship over the years. She has expressed her interest in joining the ticket, but a Democratic senator friendly to both Biden and Warren downplayed the likelihood of that happening, telling CNN: “He knows a Senate majority is too important to risk.”
Harris and Klobuchar leading candidates
As the vice presidential search intensifies, Harris and Klobuchar are widely seen as two of the leading contenders, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. The vetting process will determine whether they remain in the top tier at the end of the search.
Since both ran for president, most aspects of their backgrounds are already well known, but the research for a vice presidential selection could be far more rigorous, invasive and different than their presidential bids. Teams of lawyers will be assigned to look into their histories, particularly focusing on their respective records as prosecutors in California and Minnesota, along with financial information and personal backgrounds.
One area of exploration that could also face Klobuchar is a deeper dive into questions of how she has treated her staff over the years, which became an issue at the beginning of her presidential race. Allies of Klobuchar downplay the matter, saying her political strengths in places Democrats need to win, along with an ability to immediately help Biden govern, would outweigh any prior complaints about her management style or temperament. During the primary campaign, Klobuchar acknowledged that she sometimes pushed her staff too hard and attributed those complaints to her high standards.
“This may be one of the biggest targets of the vetting process, trying to get to the bottom of Senator Klobuchar’s staff issues,” said a longtime Biden ally who is not involved in the search and believes either senator would make a strong choice. “In the end, Joe will have to decide whether it matters or not after he sees what the vet turns up.”
The prospect of Harris and Klobuchar being seen as the leading choices has also reignited old rivalries from the primary campaign and set off something of a below-the-radar lobbying campaign, people close to both teams say. Since the moment Biden pledged during a March debate to choose a woman as his running mate, the competition has slowly escalated as supporters of both senators have been quietly pushing their respective strengths and weaknesses.
They aren’t the only senators with powerful advocates.
Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada is being promoted to Biden and his team by former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a longtime family friend, who believes a Latina would add excitement to the ticket. Reid has talked directly to Biden about picking the freshman Nevada senator as his running mate, an aide to Reid said.
“Selecting a Latina running mate with Senator Cortez Masto would certainly help to energize Nevada voters,” Reid said in a statement to CNN. “I’m not surprised to hear Senator Cortez Masto is on Vice President Biden’s short list for a running mate. She would be an excellent choice.”
Cortez Masto, a former Nevada attorney general who was elected to the Senate in 2016, wrote about the personal connection she felt to the Biden family in a fundraising email she sent for the Biden campaign in late April.
“I’ve known Joe Biden for nearly 10 years, but he wasn’t the first member of the Biden family I met. It was actually his late son, Beau, a fellow state attorney general, my partner in many important fights and a dear friend,” Cortez Masto wrote. “As I got to know Joe personally, it was clear the apple had not fallen far from the tree.”
A personal connection
Forging a personal connection with his running mate will be critical, several people close to Biden say, a point he has also repeatedly made clear himself. Biden often talks about the strong relationship he and Obama had in the White House and adds that he is looking for someone as “simpatico” as he became with the former president.
After narrowing his pick to a woman, advisers say Biden is now intentionally casting a broader net among elected officials in Washington and beyond. He often seems eager to confirm his interest in a candidate, which expands the potential field.
After a virtual rally with Florida voters last week, Biden told an Orlando television station that Rep. Val Demings, who served as one of the House impeachment managers, was “one of a group of close to a dozen really qualified and talented women who are on the list.”
Several governors who have gained attention on the frontlines of the coronavirus fight are also getting a potential look. Biden has repeatedly shined a spotlight on Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, but Democrats close to him believe at least two others are also seen as possible contenders: Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico.
But it’s an open question whether a governor would even be able to seriously entertain an offer, given the crushing demands of leading their states through a pandemic and economic collapse. None have been tested on the national stage or put through the rigors of a presidential race and Democrats close to the process believe the status of the coronavirus in each state will be a factor in whether leaders like Whitmer, Raimondo or Lujan Grisham could be picked.
Even Whitmer, who has drawn the most attention because of Michigan’s intense battle with coronavirus, is ultimately seen by many people close to Biden as a longshot. “Yes, she’s incredibly talented, but could she take the job now?” one Biden adviser not involved in the search said.
While some Democrats have urged the campaign to make an announcement at the beginning of summer, Biden appears to still favor an announcement no earlier than July.
Timing could always be adjusted, aides said, based on the length of the vetting process and when the campaign believes it could make the biggest splash for Biden to introduce his partner, only the third woman in history to be a vice presidential nominee of a major political party.
Biden has spent considerable time around many of the prospective contenders, with the audition process often unfolding as though it is playing out in real time. More such events are on his schedule, aides said, giving Biden time to familiarize himself with potential candidates.
He is scheduled to make a joint television appearance on Thursday with Stacey Abrams, who formally endorsed Biden on Tuesday, and has not been shy about her interest in serving as his running mate. Abrams, the former Democratic leader of the Georgia House who narrowly lost her bid for governor of the state in 2018, has argued that she would make an “excellent” choice for Biden.
But some close to Biden believe it is people who ran against him in the primary who will have the best chance of being selected to be a part of a future Biden administration, either as vice president or a cabinet secretary.
“He has seen these folks under pressure,” said Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, adding that “somebody who has gone through the vetting process of running for President” already has endured more scrutiny than someone who wasn’t a candidate in 2020.
For Biden, there is little downside of keeping as many options on the table as possible – or, at least, appearing to do so as the vetting process moves along. He has said he was looking for a running mate who is ready to be president at a “moment’s notice.”
The decision is one of the most intently personal that any presidential candidate will make. It is made even more important by the remarkable challenges facing whoever wins the November election. Several longtime friends say the best guide is to listen to Biden’s own words and the criteria he has outlined.
Well before it was clear he would become the Democratic presidential nominee, a voter in New Hampshire asked the former vice president what factors he would consider in choosing his own running mate.
“One, that they are younger than I am,” said Biden, who at 77 has described himself as a transitional leader. “No, I’m not being facetious! And No. 2, that they are ready on Day 1 to be president of the United States of America.”