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Should Biden run?

When presidential nominees are asked about selecting a running mate, the answer almost always is: The choice should be the person most qualified to become president if fate or circumstance were to so dictate.

The first two vice presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, fit that description. But each got the job by the vote of the electoral college, with the higher vote-getter becoming president and the runner-up his standby.

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In 1800, however, a tie there between Jefferson and Aaron Burr led under the Constitution to a vote in the House of Representatives. After 36 ballots, the Virginian carried the day and Burr had to settle for the vice presidency.

Through the years thereafter, that rationale of qualification was mostly honored in the breach. A long line of running mates got the job for various reasons other than fitness for the Oval Office, and most proved to be undistinguished. Of the nine who ascended to the presidency by death or resignation, only two -- Republican Theodore Roosevelt and Democrat Harry Truman, are generally regarded among the best chief executives.

When TR decided to take a ride in a submarine, the fictional Mr. Dooley declared: "You really shouldn't do it--unless you take (Vice President Charles) Fairbanks with you." And the senior George Bush's surprise choice, the grammatically challenged Dan Quayle, became an immediate laughingstock.

But the vice presidency has evolved into a vehicle in actual governance, thanks to enlightened presidents in choosing the likes ofWalter Mondale, Al Gore, Dick Cheney and now Joe Biden. The office no longer has been, in the sanitized words of FDR's first vice president, John Garner, "a bucket of warm spit."

Which brings me to the former Delaware senator of 36 years, chairman of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees and for the last nearly seven years among the most visible and relied-upon vice presidents in our history.

Since being in the job, Mr. Biden has often said he intended to be "the best vice president I can be" and let the option of a third presidential run take care of itself. With the buzz about him intensifying, he has a much stronger rationale now for running, as well as the track record to back it up.

Coincidentally, the political foibles of Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton have given a Biden bid more credibility, along with the glaring contrast between Mr. Biden and Ms. Clinton in perceived authenticity and openness. Mr. Biden's recent interview with Stephen Colbert was candid and electric, casting Joe of Scranton as the middle-class American for whom the now wealthy former first lady claims to be the champion.

As for Mr. Biden's late start, he needs no public buildup or huge campaign bankroll once the actual voting gets underway. More troublesome may be overcoming his reputation as gaffe-prone, generated in the past and certain to be resurrected by Republicans. But his accomplishments in the Senate and as Obama's dependable sidekick have shown him to be no Dan Quayle.

Also, there would be no dynasty narrative of the sort attached to Hillary Clinton and echoed in the Jeb Bush candidacy on the GOPside. Finally, Joe Biden's natural optimism and solid liberal credentials would probably find some support among followers of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the surprise progressive candidate in the field.

Some Democrats have argued that Hillary Clinton has been suffering for having no establishment competitor to test her mettle. With her recent criticism of President Obama's policy on training Syrian rebels, Biden could be expected to defend him, in the course of being "the best vice president" he can be.

No doubt Mr. Biden would enter the race as a long shot, with his personal reservations on running and the pressures placed on him and his emotionally shaken family. But along with them are the words of his late revered mother, Jean, which Mr. Biden shared with Mr. Colbert and his viewers: "As long as you are alive you have an obligation to strive, and you're not dead until you see the face of God."

So the Democratic Party and the country wait now as Joe Biden consults with himself. Not yet 73, he still seems to have a lot left in the tank, but only he can decide.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist, former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun and Joe Biden biographer. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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