Don’t look for Biden to pick underdog running mate

Every few days, one or another news organization reports on the state of Joe Biden’s vice-presidential search, touting the latest inside information on who is up and who is down.

Take most of it with a grain of salt. They often represent what some of the prospective Democratic nominee’s advisers think is happening — or hope will happen.

Most likely, only Biden, his wife Jill and one or two top advisers really know the state of play. After all, different staffers conduct different parts of the lengthy process — analysis of the candidates’ public record, scrutiny of their private finances, extensive interviews and ultimately the more political judgment of who would best complement Biden, as a candidate and in office.

Still, it’s evident the pecking order of potential running mates has changed since Biden said in March he would pick a woman and named four close advisers to supervise the search.

One change was public. Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, near the top in initial speculation, withdrew from consideration amid the racial protests triggered by the murder in Minneapolis by a white police officer of George Floyd, an African American suspect.

Her decision essentially acknowledged that controversy over her record in prosecuting cases involving police officers while the local county attorney was the kind of complicating factor no presidential nominee wants to overshadow the general election campaign.

Those demonstrations, plus others protesting the severity of some COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, may also have had an impact since they showed how easy it would be for a sitting governor or mayor to be consumed by her day job during the campaign.

That could limit the chances of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta and Govs. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, the latter of whom would be the first Hispanic on any major party ticket.

Such questions illustrate why 16 of the last 26 vice presidential nominees have been senators, including the last six Democrats. Though senators often lack executive experience, they convey the requisite familiarity with national and international issues and are less likely to be distracted during the campaign by their day jobs. So too would House members, who tend to be less prominent.

With Klobuchar out, any short list of potential candidates certainly includes the other two senators who showed well in the presidential campaign, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California.

Without Biden’s stunning South Carolina primary comeback that catapulted him to the nomination, Warren might well have emerged as the alternative to Sen. Bernie Sanders. And Biden approached her as a possible running mate while mulling a 2016 primary challenge to Hillary Clinton.

However, the Massachusetts senator has a few distinct disadvantages. She’s 71, and the conventional wisdom is any running mate should be significantly younger than Biden, who will be 78 in December.

In addition, her liberal positions, while popular with younger Democrats, may limit the ticket’s appeal to swing voters. She’s white in a year in which there is strong pressure for a running mate of color.

There are several reasons Harris has been the favorite. The daughter of an Indian-born mother and a Jamaican-born father, she would satisfy the yearnings of the party’s most loyal constituents, Black women.

She has served in local government, as district attorney; state government, as attorney general; and national government, as a senator. At 55, she’s 22 years younger than Biden. And a recent USA TODAY/Suffolk poll showed she generated more excitement than potential rivals among both white and Black Democrats.

Beyond Warren and Harris, it’s harder to determine which of the other names being mentioned are real and which have been included to broaden the list and assuage their egos.

In the end, Biden made clear his bottom line is qualification to serve as president — plus personal and political compatibility. That may also benefit Harris, who was close to his late son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden.

Because of Biden’s strong standing in the polls, there seems little reason for him to make a surprise, unconventional choice. That’s what underdogs sometimes do.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is a syndicated columnist.

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