After months of speculation and jockeying, Hillary Clinton’s potential ticket-mates are leaving nothing to chance.
It’s crunch time for Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential contenders.
They’ve advanced her cause in media conference calls, sat for local interviews, and done the donor chats. They’ve trekked across the country for far-flung town halls and phone banks, and rehearsed various versions of their denials and deflections. A few have been asked to fill out lengthy questionnaires.
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Now, with just over three weeks until Clinton formally accepts the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia, the handful of party officials left in contention as her ticket-mate recognize it’s close to the endgame. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is doing the Sunday show circuit. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren appeared for the first time with Clinton at a Cincinnati rally. The Department of Housing and Urban Development just announced the overhaul of a program that had soured progressives on Secretary Julián Castro.
After months of jockeying, one of them — or a dark horse — is about to see his or her career trajectory drastically altered, and they are leaving nothing to chance.
“I made a lot of mistakes in ’88. This is one thing I did right,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the party’s nominee that year, of his quick selection of Texas Sen. Lloyd Bentsen to be his running mate from a shortlist of Bentsen, Al Gore, Dick Gephardt and John Glenn.
“It’s hard to explain this, but if you do the process right, it almost always leads to the right person,” he added, nodding to the difficulty of the selection politics and noting that once the initial vetting is well underway the pick itself can’t be too far off.
Clinton’s team has kept the true vice presidential discussion to a small circle of advisers that includes former President Bill Clinton, campaign chairman John Podesta, campaign manager Robby Mook, former top aide Cheryl Mills, senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan and lawyer James Hamilton. Even close allies in the Senate haven’t heard much about their deliberations in recent weeks — the refrain among aides is now “those who talk don’t know, and those who know don’t talk.”
But Democrats who have spoken with Clinton and members of the inner circle in recent days say the months-long process is in its late stages, to the point where some advisers have been considering the politics of how to roll out the eventual selection. While Clinton is expected to announce her choice after Donald Trump’s GOP convention — partly to minimize any post-convention polling bump he gets — his pick could be a factor in her considerations. If he chooses New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, Clinton may have to puzzle through how to handle running against two outsize personalities.
Such a choice, many of the scores of top allies who’ve offered unsolicited advice have told the campaign, could highlight any “safe” selection Clinton makes, like front-runner Kaine — a dynamic the candidate is said to be aware of.
As Clinton allies mechanically repeat the team’s insistence that the first consideration is whether the prospect can step into the Oval Office if necessary, the handful of Democratic vice presidential hopefuls have been stepping up their public tryouts, aiming to impress with their rhetorical skills.
The most prominent campaign trail debut of the general election season came last week, when Warren joined Clinton on stage for the first time in Cincinnati, two weeks after she reportedly met with Hamilton, who is leading Clinton’s vetting team.
After traveling to seven states for Clinton during the primary, Kaine has been popping up on surrogate press calls while stepping up his national media presence by appearing on “Meet the Press” — and openly discussing the veepstakes — last Sunday, before also joining a campaign fundraising call for lawyers abroad next week.
Castro, for his part, on Thursday announced changes to a mortgage program that had previously earned him ire from liberals, putting more pressure on banks and private equity firms that buy distressed mortgages.
Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has also recently stepped up his own presence on campaign surrogate calls while sitting for more interviews, including some in his home state, a crucial general election battleground, and introducing Clinton at a campaign stop in Cleveland. His surrogate work has been appreciated by Clinton’s Ohio and national teams. They took notice when he unleashed a surprise attack on Trump in Washington during a Federal Reserve hearing, when Clinton was campaigning in Columbus — calling the presumptive Republican nominee a “factory of bad ideas” in an outburst that was read by Clinton aides as an attempt to prove his political chops.
Other Democrats have taken note of the dogged campaign trail presence of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, who hit 13 states for Clinton during her primary fight while doing media appearances in both Spanish and English. When Clinton recently met with House Democrats in Washington and Becerra offered her a glass of water, Rep. Joe Crowley joked, “You’re really working it.”
While there are other names under consideration — including New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, Labor Secretary Tom Perez (a favorite of many people who are on Clinton’s team after having previously served in President Barack Obama’s administration) and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken — Kaine remains the odds-on favorite to get the job, say people close to Clinton.
But a divide has emerged among his backers between those who are confident he’ll be chosen and those who fear that all the favorable attention he’s gotten has been a head fake before Clinton chooses someone more surprising.
Clinton herself has specifically praised Warren behind closed doors, regaling a group of campaign fundraisers at a hotel in San Francisco on Wednesday with the story of their joint Cincinnati event, and repeating to the private audience her public proclamation that she loves how Warren rips into Trump. While Clinton and Warren never overlapped in the Senate, they’ve spoken over the course of the campaign and sat down to chat at Clinton’s hotel before the Ohio rally.
But even though many believe Warren would go a long way toward soothing Bernie Sanders and his backers, her Senate seat remains a concern to Democrats in the chamber and the campaign, since her successor would be appointed by a Republican governor.
Leading Democrats in the Senate have looked into the replacement laws in Massachusetts and have been partially calmed since a special election would be called if Warren were to depart. Yet Washington Democrats often bring up this concern, considering what it would mean for the opening period of a Clinton presidency.
“[Clinton has] got a special problem here, which I didn’t have. She not only wants to win, she wants to win with a Democratic Congress — at minimum, the Democratic Senate. So people who would otherwise be excellent prospects — Elizabeth [Warren and] Sherrod Brown are both great, but happen to be in states with Republican governors — happen to be a big problem here,” said Dukakis.
“I’m a big fan of Elizabeth’s, and she could help them win, but losing that Senate seat even for a few months [is problematic].”
Within the Senate, the concern is even more acute when it comes to Brown, given that Democrats have determined, after investigating, that there’s no good procedure for replacing what would be Gov. John Kasich’s choice, unlike in Massachusetts or Booker’s New Jersey — where a special election would also be called.
Yet Brown has still been getting more attention from leading Democrats recently, and he has stopped using his previous standard denial when he is asked about his interest in the gig. Whereas he would once tell reporters he didn’t want the job, he gave a classic non-denial on a campaign call on Tuesday: “I am not focused on being vice president. I am not going to speculate. End of discussion.”
Some long shots are also still seeing their names batted around, however unlikely their prospects. Clinton sparked speculation on Tuesday, for example, when she met with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper in Denver before an event there.
Hickenlooper — a swing state executive who disagrees with Clinton on flash-point issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal — has been increasing his national media presence while promoting a new book, trying out a role as Trump attack dog.
“His reckless impulsive responses to things, I think people are going to wonder: Do we want this guy in charge of our economy? Do we want this guy in charge of our nuclear codes?” Hickenlooper said to POLITICO in a recent interview, insisting that he’s near the bottom of Clinton’s list. “I’ve got a full-time job here, but just in my going around the state, it scares me. Having someone like that in the White House would put a real restraint on our economy and would be very hazardous for the world.”
Having witnessed two president-vice president relationships up close, Clinton is looking for someone who she knows she can work with, say people close to her, so she has made a point of trying to get to know the prospects.
“It’s frankly like buying a refrigerator. You need something that’s going to get the job done. You can get a standard white box or you can now get something that displays pictures and talks to you,” said a former elected Democrat who remains close with Clinton, predicting a Kaine selection. “But what do you need? You need something that keeps the milk cold.”
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