WASHINGTON -- For weeks, the closest thing to drama on the Democratic side of the presidential campaign has been the Veepstakes: the mysterious process by which Joe Biden is choosing his candidate for vice president.
Who's up? Who's down? Will it be Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, Rep. Val Demings of Florida, or someone else?
Political junkies, including me, are watching the Veepstakes mostly because it's the only entertainment the Biden Channel offers.
But most Americans are not on the edges of their seats, and that's understandable.
The sobering truth is that it doesn't much matter who Biden picks, as long as she doesn't turn out to be a belly flop -- an embarrassing mistake.
In recent history, the only vice presidential choices that had major effects on an election were the failures: Democrat George McGovern's choice of Sen. Thomas Eagleton in 1972 and Republican John McCain's choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in 2008.
Eagleton withdrew from the race after reports that he had undergone electric shock treatments for depression. Palin stumbled so badly in interviews that many voters questioned McCain's judgment in choosing her.
Much of the folklore about vice presidential candidates' purported impact has turned out to be wrong.
Running mates don't guarantee that a presidential ticket will win the No. 2 candidate's home state; that may have worked half a century ago, but not anymore.
Nor do they guarantee that the ticket will win a particular demographic group; the first major party female candidates, Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Palin in 2008, failed to attract a majority of women's votes.
The most important effect of a vice presidential choice is more subtle: It gives the nominee a chance to send voters a message about what kind of president he or she wants to be.
This will be the most visible decision Biden makes in the campaign, and voters will draw lessons from it.
The first test, of course, is that the No. 2 candidate must appear capable of stepping into the presidency if needed -- "ready on Day One," as Biden often says.
That's a cliche every campaign utters, but in this case -- with a presidential candidate who is 77 years old -- it's more concrete than usual. He needs to pick someone who can credibly step up.
That's not the only message Biden's choice will send. His vice presidential pick is an opportunity to reinforce the core themes of his campaign: competence and steadiness after four years of chaos, plus a promise to heal the nation's divisions.
"The message, the image, the look is as important as anything the candidates say," Tad Devine, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Democrats Al Gore and John F. Kerry, told me. "When Bill Clinton chose Gore in 1992, you had two young families on that stage. It was a picture that reinforced the message of change. What picture does Biden want voters to see?"
If the message he wants to emphasize is racial reconciliation, that will send him toward one of the Black candidates, such as Harris or Demings.
If it's economic populism and party unity, he might lean toward Warren, who's popular among progressives.
On the flip side, strategists warn that campaigns need to worry about the messages they don't want to send -- in this case, a choice that might bolster Trump's attack on Democrats as dangerous leftists.
Choosing Warren might lend itself to the Republican message: that Biden will be a Trojan Horse and she will be the real president.
One more criterion: What weak points does the presidential candidate have, and can a running mate compensate for them?
In the Democratic primaries, Biden notably failed to attract support from younger voters. And he's talked about making his campaign "a bridge to the next generation" of Democrats.
That could send him toward a candidate with youth appeal -- perhaps Harris, who is 55, but probably not Warren, who's 71.
Finally, a factor Biden often talks about after eight years as Obama's vice president: He wants a running mate who will be a loyal partner in the White House to help his administration succeed.
"I need somebody who in fact is simpatico with me, both in terms of personality as well as substance," he told donors in May. "They don't have to agree with me on everything, but they have to have the same basic approach to how we handle the economy and (other issues)."
Biden's choice will tell us how he ranks his priorities. How important is party unity after a divisive primary campaign? How important is racial reconciliation amid rising public support for the principle that Black Lives Matter?
My bet, in line with the conventional wisdom, is that Harris is his most likely choice -- but I'm prepared to be proven wrong.
The most important test is whether Biden can combine substance and symbolism, and find a running mate with whom he is compatible in a way that appears obvious when the two appear together on a stage.
That moment probably won't come until next month. Biden has said he hopes to name his choice by Aug. 1, 15 days before the Democratic National Convention begins, but he won't face a penalty if he takes a little longer.
That's just one more reason to relax and ignore the speculation for a while. If candidate Biden does his job well, his choice will produce one day of drama -- and after that, it will hardly matter at all.
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