Biden focuses on narrowing VP list, plans to interview finalists this week

The presumptive Democratic nominee is unlikely to have a running mate announcement before next week.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on July 28, 2020.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., on July 28, 2020.Andrew Cabellero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images
By Mike Memoli, Kristen Welker and Carol E. Lee

WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden spent the past weekend out of the public eye, changing scenery with a trip to his Rehoboth Beach getaway as he prepares to narrow his vice presidential short list ahead of one-on-one meetings with the finalists expected this week.

For months, a tightknit circle of Biden’s most trusted advisers and lawyers have been hard at work assembling dossiers on the field of candidates to be the nation’s first female vice president.

Now, with just two weeks to go until he formally accepts his party’s nomination, one of the most consequential political decisions he’ll ever make comes down to the final vetting team: Biden’s head, heart and gut.

Sources close to the selection process and others with knowledge of its deliberations tell NBC News that Biden planned this weekend to drill down on vetting materials with the goal of narrowing the list down to “three or four” candidates. But several factors stand in the way of a public announcement, which aides say is unlikely to come this week.

One key element, a person involved in the process said, was polling data on each candidate, for which the campaign is still waiting. Even as the campaign looks to avoid a choice that could prove to be a political liability, the most important ingredient to Biden is having personal chemistry with the choice. Biden then hopes to meet with each finalist — in person if possible, but at least virtually — by midweek.

The final one-on-one meetings are seen as critical for Biden, who is looking to recreate with his choice the same kind of close, trusting bond he shared as vice president with Barack Obama.

Heading into the weekend, the consensus among key Democrats was that Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and former national security adviser Susan Rice were most likely to make the final cut, with Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also still in consideration.

But those familiar with Biden’s thinking cautioned that the mix could change as Biden takes a final look, and that the initial timeline Biden offered for a final decision — the first week of August — would inevitably slide.

Bass’ stock rose quickly even though she was not part of the original search pool, as her long history of activism for racial justice issues and record of bipartisan dealmaking in Washington and Sacramento met the moment. But she has been on the defensive in recent days over her work in and public comments about Cuba, as well as a recently resurfaced video of her praising the values of the Church of Scientology.

Rice has perhaps the most valuable commodity in the field: a long personal relationship and experience working in the trenches in the West Wing. For Biden, who has long said he would need to delegate significant policy areas to his vice president, Rice more than anyone has an obvious portfolio ready to assume responsibility on foreign policy.

But the campaign is also mindful that Rice’s selection would invite the Trump campaign and congressional Republicans to reopen one discussion that was a centerpiece of 2016 messaging — Benghazi — and fuel more claims by the president and his allies about the Obama administration’s handling of the Russia investigation in 2016.

Harris has been seen as perhaps the most natural fit for a Biden running mate since even before both Democrats jumped into the race. The two formed a bond years ago after Harris began working closely with Biden’s late son, Beau, when both were attorneys general, Biden in Delaware and Harris in California.

But concerns remain about whether Harris’ future political plans might complicate her working relationship in the West Wing with Biden. The campaign is also aware that some activists have concerns about Harris' record on criminal justice reform — already a liability in Biden’s record for some voters.

Progressives who have largely, if tentatively, come around to supporting Biden have also made clear that they plan to fight him on policy grounds once in office. And the former vice president's allies want to ensure that whomever he selects is prepared to take incoming fire from all sides.

In the past week, Biden has grown concerned about how the discussion of his potential running mate has largely revolved around the potential weaknesses of the leading candidates. Biden has hoped that the search process would help raise the profile of a new generation of Democrats, including some women who had been loyal defenders of him throughout the primaries, like Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

A key signal of Biden’s concern came when his campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon, issued a rare public comment amid reporting that Biden allies were put off by Harris’ “ambition,” drawing charges of sexism. Dillon tweeted that “ambitious women make history, change the world, and win.”

One name still mentioned by some Biden allies as having the potential to re-emerge late is Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, with whom Biden quickly developed a bond after campaigning for her in 2018, and who has earned high marks from voters in her battleground state for her handling of the pandemic.

Biden advisers do not expect a public rollout until next week at the earliest, and not just because the process remains fluid now that the ball is in Biden’s court. There are still questions to be answered about exactly how and where an announcement would take place, without the traditional kind of rally that in past cycles has served as a launching point for the nominating convention.

Marianna Sotomayor contributed.