With Hillary Clinton expected to step down sometime in 2013, Washington is abuzz with speculation about who will be the next Secretary of State. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice are the two most obvious candidates, though there are whispers that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is also under consideration.
So far, the intrigue has been fueled by a series of unsourced quotes from administration officials and Democratic insiders, who appear to be forming ranks around their respective candidates. One source quoted by Politico who is "familiar with the circumstances," reported that Kerry "has the inside track," having worked on President Obama's debate-prep during the campaign.
"Kerry was a very close second the first time around. He wanted it; he had several interviews. There was an assumption that he would get it if Hillary said no," the source said, noting that Hillary will soon be out of the picture. Leslie Gelb, citing insiders, made a similar point in Newsweek back in April, suggesting that Kerry might get the nod because he'd log lots of miles and "interfere least with policymaking." (He also made the case for Rice and Donilon,)
Another anonymous senior State Department official quoted in today's Boston Globe said that Kerry is the favorite in the "water cooler conversation" in Foggy Bottom. "Because of the number of trips he has taken as head of Senate foreign relations he is pretty well known to a number of people and he is very highly regarded. So I think it would be a popular choice," the official said.
Still, others close to the president are betting on Rice. One unnamed insider quoted in the Politico article said that member's of Obama's inner circle "think it's going to be Susan Rice." "If Obama wants to make her secretary," the source said, "he'll get her in." The current U.N. ambassador was perhaps the frontrunner until she went on the Sunday talkshows to relay the administration's account of the deadly Benghazi attack on Sept. 11, which later turned out to be inaccurate. Now, some Democrats fear she could face difficult questions during a Senate confirmation hearing.
One anonymous advisor quoted in the New York Times went as far as saying Rice had been "crippled" by the Benghazi fiasco. Senator Lindsey Graham's (R-SC) recent comment that Rice's confirmation would be "virtually impossible" has not helped the U.N. ambassador's case.
Kerry's chances may also be looking up now that his absence from the Senate won't cost the Democrats a majority, though there are still questions about who would replace him on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A Kerry resignation would trigger a special election in Massachusetts, potentially opening up a place for recently-defeated Republican Scott Brown, but that would still leave 53 Democrats in the Senate -- and 54 if the Independent Angus King decides to caucus with the Democrats.
Another reason to think Kerry could have the leg-up on Rice is that some of his former advisors -- including the State Department's chief economist Heidi Crebo-Rediker and Steven Feldstein, director of USAID's Office of Policy -- are already in the administration, though it's not clear how much of a difference this will make.
Finally -- and least expectedly -- the Russians seem to be pulling for Kerry. An anonymous source in the Russian foreign ministry reportedly told Kommersant business newspaper that Moscow would "much prefer" the Massachusetts senator. According to the source, Rice is considered "too ambitious and aggressive" and would make diplomatic relations between Moscow and Washington "difficult." How much the Massachusetts senator appreciates the support from the Russians is an open question.
Kerry, for his part, told the Boston Globe in June, "I'm doing the job I love as chairman and senior senator...I'm working hard at both, and I'm already preparing to run for reelection" in 2014.