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Former Vice President Joe Biden talks with Senator Kamala Harris after the conclusion of the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Tex., on Sept. 12, 2019.

Mike Blake/Reuters

The dictum about U.S. vice-presidential nominees not mattering may be on its way out as the oldest presidential frontrunner ever gets set to pick his running mate.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who will be two weeks shy of his 78th birthday when Americans vote in November, confirmed on Tuesday that he will name his vice-presidential pick next week. Mr. Biden had already vowed to choose a female running mate. And last week, he said four Black women have made his short list.

It is unlikely that Mr. Biden would have been that specific unless he intended to pick one of those four. To hold out the possibility of making history by naming a Black woman to share the ticket, only to not go through with it, would raise even more questions about Mr. Biden’s presence of mind than he already faces from Republicans and Fox News.

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At 74, Republican President Donald Trump is not much younger than Mr. Biden. But he has not faced the same innuendo about his mental sharpness – or at least, not any more than in 2016. Mr. Biden, however, must counter the Republican-spun narrative that he has grown weary and disoriented after five long decades in politics.

Who will Joe Biden pick for the VP? These are the frontrunners

That has made the choice of his running mate particularly important. Typically, presidential candidates who are as far ahead in the polls as Mr. Biden opt for a safe (read: boring) vice-presidential candidate. In 2016, Hillary Clinton picked Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, a moderate who excited no one. A bolder choice might have helped offset Ms. Clinton’s enthusiasm deficit among the Democratic base. She was too overconfident to notice.

Mr. Biden cannot afford to make the same mistake. The race is likely to tighten once the real campaign begins after Labour Day. He needs to make a splash by naming a vice-presidential nominee who can excite the base and, given Mr. Biden’s age and malapropisms, reassure swing voters that she would be fit and ready for the top job on Day 1.

No one comes closer to fitting that bill than California Senator Kamala Harris – despite a report this week in Politico that suggested that the head of Mr. Biden’s vetting committee, former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd, had soured on her. Ms. Harris had apparently failed to express remorse for embarrassing Mr. Biden during a Democratic primary debate last year. The Politico report suggested Mr. Dodd questioned whether Ms. Harris, who likely has her eye on the White House in 2024, can be trusted.

It is unlikely that Mr. Biden, who ran against Barack Obama for the 2008 Democratic nomination before becoming his running mate, would hold Ms. Harris’s previous combativeness against her. On the contrary, as a politician who has been around the block more than most, he might consider it an asset. A running mate typically serves as the nominee’s attack dog. The report channeling Mr. Dodd’s concerns reads like a head fake orchestrated by the Biden campaign meant to keep reporters guessing. Besides, a photo of Mr. Biden taken the next day captured his speaking notes with the words “Do not hold grudges” under Ms. Harris’s name.

If Ms. Harris does get passed over, it may only be because Susan Rice has won him over with an eleventh-hour pitch based on her foreign policy credentials (she served as Mr. Obama’s United Nations ambassador and national security adviser) and personal friendship. Unlike Ms. Harris, whom Mr. Biden does not know that well, Ms. Rice and Mr. Biden share a bond of trust forged in the Obama administration. The two have often disagreed, but Mr. Biden admires her policy smarts and toughness.

Ms. Rice has never run for office, however, and she remains catnip for Republicans who accuse her of lying on national television when she attributed the 2012 assault on a U.S. compound in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador to local outrage over a blasphemous video rather than a premeditated terrorist attack. Trump loyalists also accuse her of being at the centre of an effort by the Obama White House to investigate his 2016 campaign over alleged links to Russia.

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Ms. Harris and Ms. Rice, both of whom are 55, are above-average vice-presidential timber who could make mincemeat out of Mike Pence, the current Vice-President, in any debate. Both women also have Canadian connections: Ms. Harris spent her adolescence in Montreal, where her mother taught at McGill University, while Ms. Rice is married to a former CBC producer and worked in McKinsey & Co.‘s Toronto office in the early 1990s.

Mr. Biden is lucky to have such a difficult choice before him.

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