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Running Mates: As Biden considers VP pick, Jill Biden is at his side

In midst of a campaign interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, Jill Biden's presence is a constant as her husband contemplates his big decision.
Image: Joe Biden, Jill Biden
Joe Biden and Jill Biden depart after placing a wreath at Delaware Memorial Bridge Veterans Memorial Park in New Castle, Del., on May 25.Patrick Semansky / AP

WASHINGTON — Among the handful of longtime advisers whose counsel Joe Biden relies on, one name is often overlooked — that of Jill Biden. And now as her husband closes in on one of the most important political decisions of his presidential campaign, there is no one closer to his thinking — both literally and figuratively.

Jill Biden's low-key presence is in part by design for a self-described reluctant political spouse who has become one of the former vice president's most powerful surrogates. But her role has been magnified in recent months in part for one simple fact: The coronavirus pandemic has meant even Biden's most senior campaign officials have spent far less time with him in person, while his wife has been a near-constant presence as they both campaign in earnest from their Delaware home.

"She's gotten involved deeply in this campaign, more than she ever has before," Biden told donors recently, mentioning not only her role as a chief surrogate but also as a confidant.

Having demonstrated herself to be one of Biden's most effective advocates, earning the nickname "the closer," Jill Biden has ramped up an aggressive virtual campaign itinerary of late.

And now, few close to Biden doubt that what you might call "the Jill Test" is its own vetting of sorts for some of those on his vice presidential short list.

On Friday, Jill Biden will appear for the first time — virtually, at least — with the woman seen for now as the betting favorite for the No. 2 slot, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., for an event targeting Wisconsin voters about the Affordable Care Act.

Harris, more than any of the other women most often seen as contenders, has an important asset: a personal bond with the Biden family that predates the campaign, one rooted in the friendship she formed with Biden's son Beau when they served as attorneys general from their respective states.

Harris worked closely with Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015, in the aftermath of the financial crash in 2008. In her book "Truths We Hold," Harris described Biden as "an incredible friend and colleague" who had her back as they fought the big banks over the foreclosure crisis.

"There were periods when I was taking heat when Beau and I talked everyday, sometimes multiple times a day," Harris wrote. "We had each other's backs."

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Even so, it was Harris who delivered perhaps the first major direct broadside of the campaign against Biden on a debate stage one year ago this week, directly challenging his record on civil rights in the first televised candidates' faceoff.

And Jill Biden raised eyebrows this spring as she recalled that moment.

"Our son Beau spoke so highly of her and, you know, and how great she was. And not that she isn't. I'm not saying that. But it was just like a punch to the gut. It was a little unexpected," she said in March.

Jill Biden has been her husband's fiercest protector in the campaign — at times literally, as twice she confronted protesters who interrupted his campaign events. And in her 2019 book, "Where the Light Enters," she noted a contrast between her and her husband.

"Joe has an incredible capacity to forgive, and he's incapable of holding a grudge. But that means I end up being the holder of the grudges," she wrote. "I remember every slight committed against the people I love. I can forgive, sure — but I don't believe in rewarding bad behavior."

Sources close to Biden and Harris insist that all parties have long since moved on from the fireworks in Miami a year ago, the Bidens better than anyone else understanding how former rivals can come together, as Biden did with Barack Obama in 2008.

Joe Biden has repeatedly heaped praise on Harris, and campaign officials say she has done everything she's been asked to do for them and more. Harris has said her husband, Doug, also became friends with Jill Biden during the primaries, as well. "There's a special bond between the spouses," she said this month.

Those familiar with the conversations say the stab at Biden a year ago, which was once seen as a negative, could now be a plus, as one of the chief roles of a running mate is to be an attack dog — both against President Donald Trump and in a vice presidential debate against Mike Pence.

Harris recently laughed off a question about whether her debate clash with Biden could hurt her chances. "It was a debate!" she told "Late Show" host Stephen Colbert. "We all have family members or friends with whom we have disagreements. That doesn't overcome or overshadow the commonalities between us or the connections between us."

Joe Biden, appearing with Harris this month for a virtual fundraiser, called her "a fighter and a principled leader" while again raising their bond through Beau Biden.

"You said, 'I love you, and I loved Beau.' I won't forget that," Biden said, recalling a brief pre-campaign encounter between the two.

Jill Biden will also hold a separate event Friday with another Democrat being vetted by the campaign: Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. Ahead of the March Florida primary, she campaigned in person with Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., joining her for a church service in her hometown, Orlando. In May, she joined another potential veep candidate, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, for a virtual organizing event.

In a normal campaign, the Bidens would likely see far less of each other as they fan out with largely independent schedules. But the duo are now often tagging in and out from their home studio in Delaware as they campaign virtually.

As the campaign has experimented with what it calls "virtual travel days" to battleground states, it is Jill Biden who has crossed off the most states — hitting six in May. Advisers have stressed that her schedule mirrors what she would be doing if the pandemic never happened, holding small meetings with groups she personally cares about, like educators and military families, and encouraging new volunteers during virtual training sessions.

She often acknowledges that viewers tuning in to her events may not know much about her, taking the first couple of minutes to introduce herself by talking about how she came to meet her husband — and the equal importance he placed on her desire to fulfill her career as a teacher.

More recently, she has become the campaign's primary surrogate to Latino voters, holding virtual conversations with members of the community in Colorado, Arizona and Pennsylvania. She has also held almost weekly calls to hear the Congressional Hispanic Caucus' concerns and relay them to the campaign and Biden himself.

"What I've heard, especially over the last few months, is that our party hasn't always done enough to earn the Latino vote. We've taken it for granted at times, but you matter to this campaign. And more than that, you matter to me," Biden said during a "Charla Con Biden" event with Latina leaders Dolores Huerta and Los Angeles County Commissioner Hilda Solis.

"And if I have the honor of being your first lady," she pledged, "I promise you this: I will dedicate myself to ensuring that you have a place at the table, alongside me. Because we all know women are the ones with cojones!"