McCain and Obama may be open to Gates

Times Staff Writers

With two wars raging and an election approaching, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has sent senior civilians at the Pentagon a clear message: Be ready to stick around into a new administration to ensure a smooth hand-over in a time of war.

But increasingly, the campaigns of Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain have considered sending a similar message to Gates.

According to aides and allies close to both candidates, the idea of keeping Gates at the helm of the Pentagon under the next president has begun to gain support from national security advisors in both campaigns.


“My personal position is Gates is a very good secretary of Defense and would be an even better one in an Obama administration,” said Richard Danzig, a top Obama national security advisor and a former Navy secretary.

One longtime McCain ally, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss personnel issues, said the Arizona senator would be likely to ask Gates to stay on for several months to ensure a smooth wartime transition of power.

As a prominent Cabinet official in an administration so polarizing and publicly unpopular, Gates’ unusual cross-party appeal points to his rare success in nurturing a nonpartisan image.

Yet Gates has insisted he has no intention of sticking around. When asked at a recent news conference if he would stay on after the end of the Bush administration, he replied: “The circumstances under which I would do that are inconceivable to me.”

Gates frequently mentions a clock he carries to count down the minutes until he can return home to his manse on a lake outside Seattle.

At the same time, officials who work with Gates note that his sense of responsibility and concern for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has only grown in recent months, alongside his concern that the military’s leadership has not moved quickly enough at times to provide equipment and supplies needed by troops.

National security experts in the Democratic and Republican camps said Gates had emerged as an attractive candidate both because of his management of the wars -- the steep drop in violence in Iraq has occurred under his watch -- and the bipartisan approach he uses to run the Pentagon, a sharp difference from his predecessor, Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“There are two kinds of Defense secretaries: those who get the civilian stewardship role of the department and those who do not,” said Michele Flournoy, a Clinton-era Pentagon official who is seen as likely to serve in an Obama administration. “Gates really gets that. It’s a wonderful attribute . . . which has been noticeably absent from other secretaries.”

For Obama, appointing Gates would give his administration a bipartisan sheen and mute concerns that his team lacks national security experience.

But Gates would face some significant hurdles to becoming even an interim Defense secretary for either McCain or Obama. The biggest on the Democratic side would be his ties to President Bush, likely to raise the hackles of liberals who want Obama to push for an immediate exit from Iraq.

Flournoy noted that Gates had put “firm stakes down” on positions other than Iraq -- including the need to focus the Pentagon’s resources on current wars, as opposed to investing in future technologies -- that could run afoul of either McCain or Obama. “There are some people waiting in the wings for their shot and who are, at this point, much closer to the candidates,” she said.

Even if McCain selected Gates, he would probably serve only until another candidate could be confirmed, the senator’s longtime ally said, adding that former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage is expected to be McCain’s top choice.