Rice vs. Kerry: Weighing the odds of being secretary of state

Obama may soon announce his nominee

WASHINGTON - It's a favorite game in Washington to weigh the odds of each potential nominee to a president's cabinet and that game is in full swing -- especially in trying to anticipate President Barack Obama's choice for replacing Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

With speculation mounting that President Obama may soon announce his nominee, two very well-known names -- Sen. John Kerry, D-Massachusetts, and Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice -- remain the two top possibilities. Each comes with strengths but with baggage as well.

Rice's name has been floated in recent weeks as being Obama's preferred candidate for the top diplomatic post.

Twice in recent weeks the president has voiced support for her as she has been at the receiving end of a barrage of criticism over how she presented the administration's explanation for the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. Her appearance on Sunday talk shows the weekend after the attack that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador has led to questions as to whether she is too controversial now to be chosen by the president.

The criticisms, mostly from Republicans, laid bare what a difficult confirmation process in the Senate she would face.

"When it comes to Susan Rice, I can tell you as far as Lindsey Graham is concerned, I find great fault with what she said on 16 September and in other areas -- I find her lacking when it comes to being the best choice for secretary of state," Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-South Carolina, said this past Sunday on "Face the Nation" on CBS. "But this is up to the president," Graham said.

The looming question is whether the White House wants to go through a bruising confirmation process while it is already engaged in treacherous negotiations with congressional Republicans as part of an effort to avert to so-called fiscal cliff.

If Rice were to survive a bruising confirmation battle, large questions would still remain over her future relations with Congress and whether she would be able to haggle with legislators over big issues like the department's budget. And there are questions over what kind of support she would have from within the State Department.

But she is very close with Obama, and would likely be seen as speaking for him in her dealings with her international interlocutors -- a valuable form of currency in the world of diplomacy.

Rice, who spent a good portion of last week meeting with senators on Capitol Hill, seemed to do little in those sessions to assuage concerns of prominent Republicans who would ultimately vote on her nomination. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, told CNN she would "certainly hold the nomination until we get a full and complete picture of what happened here."

Enter Kerry, the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and one-time Democratic nominee for president. With Kerry widely thought to harbor high ambitions for the post at Foggy Bottom, several of his Republican colleagues in the Senate have made clear he would face a much smoother confirmation process were Obama to nominate him.

"I think there are other good choices for secretary of state, better choices probably. I think Senator Kerry is one of them," Sen. Rob Portman,R-Ohio, told the New York Times recently. "He would have an easy time here." That sentiment has met with agreement from other Republican senators in recent days such as John Barasso of Wyoming and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, who in many ways has led the opposition to the idea of a Rice nomination may have telegraphed his preference Monday when he jokingly referred to Kerry as "Mr. Secretary" at a joint appearance on Capitol Hill with the Massachusetts senator. Kerry was quick to redirect, noting instead that he and McCain were members of another, less illustrious club.

"Thank you very much, Mr. President. This is what happens when you get two losers" together, Kerry joked of the two men's failed presidential campaigns.

But what would a Kerry nomination mean for the foreign policy of the United States?

Serving as chairman of the committee since 2009, Kerry is widely respected in many parts of the world and seen as someone good at building relationships.

He is also viewed by many as more experienced in the diplomacy necessary for a secretary of state. Kerry has traveled at times around the globe on behalf of the administration to mend frayed relationships --most notably Pakistan after a series of incidents, including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, had set relations back.

Were he to stay in his current role, such diplomatic travel could provide the administration with a powerful voice who could take the temperature in locations overseas while maintaining a degree of "plausible deniability" by not being a part of the administration.

But Kerry is not seen as much of an Obama confidante in the way Rice is, and his influence in forming and shaping U.S. foreign policy would be unclear. Though he did earn high marks for helping the president prepare for the debates against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, Kerry is also seen as having something of an independent streak, and it is not clear how disciplined and on-message he would be in the job.

More worrisome for Democrats is the fate of Kerry's seat and whether it would remain in Democratic hands in a special election if he were to leave.

A nomination for Clinton's replacement is thought to be coming soon -- possibly as early as this week. Rice is still seen as the front runner for the nomination, and while Obama has not said whom he is leaning towards, he does not appear to be wavering in his support of her. "Susan Rice is extraordinary. I couldn't be prouder of the job that she's done," he told reporters during a Cabinet meeting last week.

As for Kerry, his name is also on most lists for a possible nomination to be the next secretary of defense. It's good to have options.