Biden’s veep search enters new phase as selection committee steps up activity

The high-profile race on the periphery of the 2020 presidential contest – to become presumptive nominee Joe Biden’s running mate – is charging ahead, with the vetting committee beginning to ramp up their work to scrutinize the group of women who could potentially join him on the ticket.

Sources familiar with the campaign told ABC News that at least one strategy call has taken place for what Biden says will be an exhaustive process that will mirror his own vetting 12 years ago for the same position.

House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a top Biden ally, told ABC News that he is confident the team the presumptive nominee has put in place to vet potential picks will serve him well.

“I think that the vice president, the former vice president, if you please, has put together a committee of co-chairs, all of whom I know,” Clyburn said. “They are going about the business of doing the vetting and the polling that’s required to put together the kind of winning ticket that we need.”

ABC News reached out to about a dozen women speculated or confirmed to be on the list about the state of the vetting process, but most are officially declining to offer any details.

As the former vice president’s vetting committee convenes, public comments from at least one of the women, coupled with the other tangential moves, signal a new phase for the search – one that is expected to winnow the field down to a few top contenders by mid-summer.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, more openly engaging on questions about the process, said she’s had an informal, “opening” conversation with Biden’s campaign.

Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Whitmer has done numerous cable and network interviews over her state’s response, which has put her in a unique space as one of the most visible Democratic leaders on the frontlines and a possible candidate for the nation’s second highest office. Nearly all of them have been bookended by an attempt to get Michigan’s chief executive to divulge details about being under consideration to be Biden’s number two – a question she often deflects.

On Tuesday morning, the first-term governor finally disclosed a new detail, telling the “Today Show” she’s had an “opening conversation” with “some folks” when asked about the vetting process.

“It was just an opening conversation and it’s not something that I would call a professional, formalized vetting,” she said. “I am making a little bit of time to stay connected to the campaign but the most important thing that I have to do right now is be the governor of my home state.”

While the public comments from Whitmer don’t reveal much about the specifics of the vetting process, they usher in more questions about who the Biden campaign is actively speaking to and who they aren’t.

Another possible vice presidential nominee, Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth “regularly communicates” with his team, a spokesperson told ABC News. But the spokesperson did not provide any details on whether she has submitted vetting materials to the campaign.

Duckworth, a Thai American and a combat veteran of the Iraq War who lost both of her legs in 2004 after the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade, was an early supporter of Biden.

The Illinois senator, who was appointed to the White House’s Opening Up America Again task force last month, has openly criticized President Trump, while offering a full-throated commitment to getting Biden elected.

“My focus is on getting Joe Biden elected,” she told ABC’s “The View” last week. “I am frustrated with Donald Trump and his failure of a regime — of an administration in the White House so I would do whatever I need to do to help Joe Biden get elected, so that we can finally turn the corner in this country and get back on a path where we need to be.”

Late last week, her fellow senator from Illinois, Dick Durbin, hinted at next steps for Duckworth, telling the Chicago Tribune, “I support Tammy Duckworth. She’s spectacular, a great colleague and I hope that she fares well in this interview, which I think is going to take place soon.”

As speculation intensifies over Biden’s eventual pick, his campaign hired a close ally of California Sen. Kamala Harris. Julie Rodriguez, who joins the former vice president’s newly-growing team to help with Latino outreach, served as Harris’ co-national political director. She is also the granddaughter of the prominent labor leader and activist César Chávez.

Biden’s shortlist has been molded by his frequent and candid public comments, and has already been subject to lobbying from prominent backers of the former vice president.

But Clyburn, who said he is not surprised by the unusual level of public jockeying to be Biden’s running mate, said the calculus behind the pick has to go beyond race.

“I think that what would make a mistake if one were to feel that a person of color is all that is required to galvanize black voters,” Clyburn said. “You got to look at what the candidate is proposing.”

“So just picking a person of color won’t cut it…You got to pick the person that not just got credibility in the African American community, but also is – what’s the word he calls – simpatico with him,” he said.

Among those considered to be in contention are former top 2020 contenders like Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, high-profile governors leading their states through the ongoing COVID-19 crisis like Whitmer and New Mexico’s Michelle Lujan Grisham, to other prominent African American female leaders like former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Florida Congresswoman Val Demings and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Earlier this month, during a virtual fundraiser over Zoom, Biden outlined the ideal criteria for his potential running mate and the process he once went through with then-Democratic nominee Barack Obama in 2008.

He said the “first and most important attribute” he is looking for is readiness to step into the role of president if anything were to happen to him.

Biden also added that after seeking advice from former President Barack Obama on his choice, he urged him to look for a partner who is “simpatico” and “agrees strategically” with him.

“I want to make sure that the person I pick is bright, has capacities in areas that I do not, that I’m not as qualified, that I don’t have as much capacity, and in fact, is ready to be president on day one. And that process is underway, and I can’t tell you that it’s been narrowed down at all, we’re just beginning,” Biden said.

Biden told donors that the vice presidential selection committee behind the search is “in the process of thoroughly examining a group of women, all of whom are capable in my view of being president. And there’s about a dozen of them. We’re keeping the names quiet.”

Both Whitmer and Klobuchar, have appeared on Biden’s podcast, “Here’s the Deal,” which offered a candid look at his relationship with the two women and a preview of a possible working partnership between them.

A number of the women thought to be on the shortlist have been asked about the potential of serving as Biden’s running mate, most saying they would be honored to serve in the role but declining to discuss the speculation further.

But three have notably been more forthcoming with their interest in the role.

Former National Security Advisor and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice said in an interview on PBS News last week that she would “certainly say yes,” if asked to join Biden on the ticket.

Abrams, has spent the last few weeks actively auditioning for the role, telling Elle Magazine, “I would be an excellent running mate.”

Warren, who when asked if she would serve as Biden’s running mate said “yes,” without hesitation, recently appeared to shift her rhetoric on the signature issue of health care. At a virtual event with the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics earlier this week, Warren seemed amiable towards strengthening the Affordable Care Act, while still expressing a preference for the country to move to a single payer health care system.

“I argued for Medicare for All. I think ultimately getting us to a single payer, I think it’s what makes sense,” she said. “But the question is how are we going to get there in a way that brings people in and people feel comfortable with it? I think right now people want to see improvements in our health care system. And that means strengthening the Affordable Care Act, we should be doing that anyway.”

The formal start to the campaign’s vetting process was marked by the announcement of the team responsible for vetting the diverse group of female prospects, which includes four co-chairs: former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd; Delaware Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; and Cynthia C. Hogan, former White House and Senate counsel to Biden.

“There’ll be background checks done…significant background checks like they did with me,” he said. “Everything from my finances, to anything on my record from my high school and college records all the way through, to if I ever was involved in any trouble or anything at all.”

“It’s a deep, deep background check. It takes somewhere between five weeks and eight weeks to get it done,” Biden added, before the list is “narrowed down.”

Biden said in a recent interview that he believes it will take until July to narrow down the shortlist.

“My guess is it’s gonna take until sometime in July to narrow it down and background checks just to who’s the one, two, three people are that may be in the hunt,” Biden told late-night host James Corden last month.

ABC News’ Alisa Wiersema, Quinn Scanlan and Meg Cunningham contributed reporting.

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