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Hillary Clinton's VP pick likely to be 'boring' but qualified

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the 87th League of United Latin American Citizens National Convention at the Washington Hilton in Washington, Thursday, July 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

When Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) took the stage with Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally in Northern Virginia Thursday, he pitched himself aggressively as an attack dog against Donald Trump.

Referring to the presumptive Republican nominee’s “Apprentice” catchphrase, “You’re fired,” Kaine said America needs a “You’re hired president.” He also criticized Trump for belittling minorities and showed off his own Spanish-speaking skills.

With the days counting down to the Democratic National Convention, Kaine, a former governor and Democratic National Committee chairman, is widely seen as one of a handful of finalists on Clinton’s short list for a potential running mate.

Also believed to be in contention are Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Rep. Xavier Beccera (D-CA), and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have also been identified as strong prospects.

Trump will announce his running mate Friday morning, but multiple media outlets reported Thursday that all signs are pointing toward Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. Pence is a conservative establishment figure with extensive executive and legislative experience, and Republicans see him as a safe choice who could offset some of Trump’s perceived weaknesses.

“Pence is someone who will never, ever, overshadow Trump, and is a conservative with a track record on the Hill and experience running a state,” said Republican strategist Brian Fraley. “That hit all of Trump's criteria.”

Many factors could go into Clinton’s selection process, and there is no shortage of advice out there for the former secretary of state.

"The most important thing from my experience being vice president is have a president pick someone they trust completely, they actually like and they know will have their back and can take over a big chunk of what they have to do because there's so much that falls on a president's desk these days," current Vice President Joe Biden told MSNBC.

Biden said he is not interested in reprising the VP role himself.

By all accounts, Clinton’s former rival Bernie Sanders is not under serious consideration for the slot, but he has offered some thoughts on what he would like to see.

"We need somebody who is not attached to Wall Street. We need somebody who has a history of standing up and fighting for working families,” Sanders said in an interview with “Today” Wednesday.

Sanders’ strong endorsement of Clinton Tuesday and Warren’s vocal presence on the campaign trail has somewhat reduced the urgency of placing an outspoken progressive on the ticket, though.

Experts say Clinton has other priorities to consider, and she stands to gain little from making an unexpected and potentially risky pick.

“Flashy choices are overrated, and in fact often have more risk than reward,” said Matt McDermott, a senior analyst at Whitman Insight Strategies.

“More than anything else – geography, ticket balance, demographics – it’s important to have a vice president that’s a cheerleader for your message, that’s willing to advocate and fight for the message you as a candidate and ultimately, as president, are trying to convey,” he explained.

With Warren, Sanders, and Biden serving as surrogates, the Democratic ticket will likely appeal to progressives regardless of Clinton’s running mate.

Kyle Kopko and Christopher Devine, authors of “The VP Advantage: How Running Mates Influence Home State Voting in Presidential Elections,” said the geographic and demographic impact of a VP pick are often vastly overestimated. They rarely deliver a state or a voting block the nominee could not otherwise win.

“Avoiding someone who’s going to be controversial is important,” said Kopko, assistant dean at Elizabethtown College. If Clinton wants the race to be a battle of ideas with Trump, she does not want a running mate who detracts from her message.

In the modern era, the vice presidency is often about serving as an emissary for the president’s agenda. A progressive firebrand like Warren could forcefully lobby Clinton on economic policies, but she would ultimately be expected to fall in line and support the president’s goals.

“It’s not exactly clear if someone like Elizabeth Warren is going to be comfortable in that type of role,” Kopko said.

Fraley predicted Clinton will gravitate toward a safer pick, but one who does not alienate the party’s progressive wing.

“Hillary is a smarter tactician and will choose someone that helps her on the left and the middle,” he said. “She will likely pick someone who doesn't offend the Bernie crowd but also isn't viewed as reckless by white suburban voters.”

In addition to Kaine and Brown, he suggested former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) could fit that bill.

Since polls show the base is already overwhelmingly gravitating toward Clinton, shoring up her progressive credentials may not be needed. However, given that many voters remain undecided or are considering sitting out the election completely, energizing the left could have benefits.

“My guess would be that it may turn out that she doesn’t need to reach in that direction. On the other hand, if she’s concerned about turnoutthat would be a factor,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law.

Goldstein, author of “The White House Vice Presidency: The Path to Significance, Mondale to Biden,” said Clinton’s selection will tell voters a lot about her values and her decision-making process, and picking someone who could govern if necessary should be a top priority.

“I think always the threshold requirements are you pick somebody who’s a plausible president and who passes the vetting screen,” he said.

Being able to make her announcement after Trump picks his running mate offers Clinton a slight edge.

“The person who goes last has an advantage in that part of the context develops,” he said. “You know what the other ticket looks like and you can plan accordingly.”

Still, experts doubt Trump’s choice, if it is Pence, will weigh heavily on Clinton’s decision. McDermott noted that one of Clinton’s biggest selling points against Trump has been “steady, thoughtful leadership,” so a massive course correction would be out of character.

“While the method and venue of her VP roll-out could certainly change as a result of the pick or next week’s convention, the steadiness she has thus far displayed in this campaign makes any potential impact improbable,” he said.

Kopko said Clinton and Trump have vastly different priorities. DC outsiders like Trump often pick insiders with extensive political experience, like Pence. Clinton, as a former first lady, senator, and cabinet secretary, has no need to check that box.

If Trump had made a more in-your-face pick, Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton, said Clinton would have likely felt pressure to make a more electrifying choice herself.

“I’d say it makes it easier for her to pick someone boring like Tim Kaine,” he said.

Goldstein cautioned against succumbing to the temptation to make an exciting, outside-the-box selection.

“It’s a mistake to try to pick somebody who you think is glitzy and exciting if you don’t think they’re ready for primetime,” he said.

Some of the running mates who have performed best on the campaign trail have been the ones who were dismissed as predictable and dull, such as Al Gore, Dick Cheney, and Edmund Muskie. Others who seemed exciting in the summer, like Sarah Palin and John Edwards, have fizzled in November.

“If you do something that doesn’t pass the straight face test, then that tends to be counter-productive,” Goldstein said.

“Anything that they can do, either candidate, to make a safe choice is a good idea,” Kopko said.

Using Palin as an example, he observed that research indicated she cost John McCain up to 2 million moderate voters, but she also energized conservatives and likely increased turnout from the base.

“I don’t think she’s likely to go with a gimmicky pick,” Devine said of Clinton, who has seen the importance of the vice presidency from the inside.

Whoever Clinton picks, experts are skeptical that it will do much to overcome one of her greatest weaknesses: trust.

“I don’t think the VP choice, regardless who he or she may be, is the best messenger to validate Clinton’s trustworthiness,” McDermott said. “It’s an argument best made by Clinton herself and one that can provide a real contrast with Trump’s entirely deceptive career.”

Kopko said voters are too unfamiliar with most of Clinton’s finalists to move that needle much.

“That’s going to have to be just a broad goal of the campaign over the next few months,” he said.

However, Devine said a figure like Kaine or Warren could help because they are seen as genuine in their beliefs. A choice like that could “reflect well upon the conscience of the campaign,” like Joe Lieberman boosted the sincerity and integrity of Al Gore’s campaign in 2000.

Short List

Experts see clear upsides and downsides with most of Clinton’s reported top options for a running mate.

Tim Kaine: Well-regarded within the party, capable, appealing to moderates and independents, and possessing executive and legislative experience, he is not particularly well-known on a national level and is widely seen as a relatively boring choice. He does speak Spanish, a plus for appealing to Latino voters.

Elizabeth Warren: On the plus side, the base loves her. On the minus side, the base loves her so much she could overshadow Clinton and accentuate some of Clinton’s personal flaws. Perhaps more importantly, selecting her would give a Republican governor a chance to name her replacement in the Senate.

Sherrod Brown: Kopko said he has a “liberal populist streak” and a firm understanding of manufacturing issues. Like Warren, he could appeal to the progressive wing of the party, but like Warren, he would be replaced by a Republican in the Senate.

Tom Perez: “He’s obviously developed a relationship with the Clintons,” Goldstein said. “He’s popular with labor, with unions.” However, he has never run for national office and is a relative newcomer to the national stage, so placing him on the ticket could undermine the Clinton campaign’s argument that Trump is unprepared and unqualified to be commander-in-chief.

Julian Castro: “I suspect for Clinton that would be too much of a naked political appeal to Latinos,” Devine said. His relative lack of experience makes him one of the weaker options.

Xavier Beccera: A longtime member of Congress with extensive legislative experience but a fairly low profile on the national level, he could help excite Latino voters while also being a credible governing partner.

Tom Vilsack: A longtime ally of the Clintons and a runner-up for John Kerry’s VP slot, he could be an exception to the presumption that running mates do not win states. “He fits the profile of someone who could potentially deliver a key state,” Kopko said of the former Iowa governor. He is not an exciting figure, though, and he does not speak Spanish.

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