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CALIFORNIA POLITICS

GOP dream candidate Condi Rice says no thanks to U.S. Senate bid

California Republicans, looking for a candidate to face Kamala Harris, court Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice — Stanford professor, Soviet specialist, former U.S secretary of state — once said her dream job was commissioner of the National Football League. So she knows a Hail Mary pass when she sees one.

Stick with that metaphor, for a moment, and consider the California Republican Party. The GOP is down by six touchdowns and mired, as it has been for years, on its own 10-yard line. Suddenly, opportunity!

Republicans turn to their bench, seeking someone with a serious shot at an open U.S. Senate seat and find … no one.

Rocky Chavez, a second-term assemblyman from Oceanside, just announced he is running. Other Republicans, including a pair of retired state party chairmen, Duf Sundheim and Tom Del Beccaro, are exploring candidacies.

Few, however, expect any of them to be shopping for Washington, D.C., real estate come November 2016.

Ah, but Condi Rice....

For years, she has tantalized Republicans, dazzled by her resume, her political star power and, not least, the fact that, as a black woman, she might broaden the GOP's appeal to a universe of voters — women and minorities — who have been key to Democrats' growing political dominance across the state.

If only.

Rice has made her lack of interest in elected office repeatedly and abundantly clear. Still, when a Field Poll came out last month showing Rice atop a list of 18 prospective Senate candidates, statistically tied with Democratic front-runner Kamala Harris, there was a whole new burst of Condi-mania.

Fundraisers (cynically, greedily) ginned up a draft Condi email solicitation. Reporters pursued Rice to see if she had changed her mind about running (she hadn't). Republicans went through another wistful round of might-have-beens.

But Rice, who has never lacked for political sophistication, has good reason to avoid a contest that would amount to heaving the ball heavenward and hoping for the best.

Rice is brilliant and undeniably accomplished. She has also never run for political office, a task that is not easy, especially when your first try is a statewide race at the top of the California ticket. Just ask Al Checchi or Meg Whitman, both of whom were fabulously successful in their business careers and failed miserably in their campaigns for governor.

More broadly, this state is deeply inhospitable to anyone running these days with an 'R '— as in Republican — after their name, no matter their stature.

The Field Poll found that about three in 10 Democrats were inclined to support Rice if she tried for the Senate, more than any of the other half a dozen GOP prospects mentioned. But that's almost certainly a high-water mark before any campaign got underway — a campaign that would assuredly tie Rice unfavorably to her old boss, the very unpopular former President George W. Bush.

"There's not a very detailed knowledge or awareness of her," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the Field Poll. "There's a lot of possibilities for Democrats, if she ever were to run, to fill in the blanks."

Starting, it must be assumed, with her prominent role leading the nation to war with Iraq, a pursuit that accounts for much of Bush's unpopularity.

On top of all that, a run for U.S. Senate comes with an added hurdle, for Rice or any other California Republican. In effect, it's not just a vote for an individual the way, say, one casts a ballot for governor. It's a vote for the national party, its policies and its leadership — none of which are very well regarded in the state.

"You might like Condi Rice, but do you want to make [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz a committee chairman?" asked Allan Hoffenblum, a GOP strategist who has spent decades in and around California politics. "Do you like having [Kentucky Sen.] Mitch McConnell as majority leader? If you're voting for someone for U.S. Senate, there's a great deal of impact beyond the individual that's running."

Politics aside, Rice has personal reasons to stay where she is, teaching at Stanford, giving paid speeches and helping to manage a global strategic consulting firm. Those who know her say she is a frequent and happy presence at Stanford sporting events, has become heavily involved in the recruitment of scholar-athletes to the campus and enjoys every opportunity she can to improve her golf game.

A colleague reports seeing her once on the campus driving range, in pouring rain, hitting buckets of balls.

Better there, she must figure, than in the political line of fire.

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Twitter: @markzbarabak

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