The common view is that the American vice presidency is little more than booby prize awarded to achieve balance on the national ticket, and is a dead end to further political ambition.

Never mind that the last two veeps, Democrat Joe Biden and Republican Dick Cheney, have been influential players in the administrations in which they've served. Mr. Cheney is often rated the most powerful vice president in history by adoring Republicans and despising Democrats alike.

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As for Mr. Biden, regularly mocked by Republicans as a loose cannon, he has been a visible and substantive policy adviser to his president, with 36 years of impressive service in the Senate before his six years as VP. Yet he is widely dismissed as a possible 2016 presidential candidate.

Although two other vice presidents of recent memory, Democrats Al Gore and Walter Mondale, similarly played key roles in the Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter administrations, the old VP reputation lingers in many minds.

Jokes still abound about the office, reinforced in the one-term tenure of Republican Dan Quayle, the boyish, golf-happy Hoosier who on one Latin American mission said the U.S. would "work toward the elimination of human rights," among other verbal gaffes.

Not heard quite as often anymore is the old yarn about the mother of two sons, one of whom was lost at sea and the other became vice president. And if Cactus Jack Garner, FDR's first veep, were around today, he might not have dismissed the office (in the sanitized version) as "a bucket of warm spit."

But presidential candidates, even the longshots, continue to brush off suggestions that they really aspire to the vice presidential nomination, as if it were beneath their qualifications or even a sort of insult to them.

In 1848, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, when offered the Whig vice-presidential nomination, contemptuously declined, saying "I do not want to be buried before I am dead." Many years later, Nelson Rockefeller as governor of New York said he was "not built to be standby equipment." Nevertheless, he took the vice presidency when the occupant, Gerald Ford, was elevated to the presidency upon Nixon's resignation, obviously hoping lightning might later strike him, too.

One very improbable presidential aspirant, Gov. Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania, moderately known for settling a local rail strike, was asked by a reporter not whether he was really out for the vice presidency but whether he aspired to become secretary of transportation. He attained neither.

The senior George Bush, opposing Ronald Reagan for the GOP presidential nomination in 1980, derisively dismissed the notion that the was really running for vice president. For emphasis, he cited Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman's famous rejection of presidential ambitions: "If nominated I will not run; if elected I will not serve."

Mr. Bush rephrased it to reject the vice-presidential talk, by repeatedly saying: "Take Sherman and cube it." But when Reagan, after toying with taking former President Ford as his running mate, finally thought better of it, Mr. Bush eagerly grabbed the offer.

Today, with 16 Republicans in the presidential race, the pool of possible running mates is deep, with several considered likely to jump at the chance to be on the national ticket on the back end, if necessary.

Although the vice presidency is often referred to as a steppingstone to the presidency, only nine have made it from the second office, eight by the death of a president and one by the resignation of Richard Nixon. Of all the sitting veeps, only four — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Van Buren and George H.W. Bush — were subsequently elected directly to the Oval Office.

Still, the odds seem fair that with 16 presidential wannabes around now, one of them, if eventually asked to be No. 2, would snap it up if it came to that.

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

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