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Obama, Clinton may yet team up

Nicholas is a Times staff writer.

Hillary Rodham Clinton emerged Friday as a top contender to be secretary of State after flying to Chicago the day before and meeting privately with President-elect Barack Obama, former advisors to the senator from New York said.

Obama is weighing other prominent elected officials for the post of the nation’s top diplomat, but has zeroed in on the former first lady and runner-up for the Democratic presidential nomination, according to one of her campaign aides.

Many of Clinton’s allies would like her to take the job, even though it would mean giving up her independent power base in the Senate. “She could weld this world together,” said Susie Tompkins Buell, a Clinton donor and friend. “I think it would be amazing.”

Since losing the hard-fought primary to Obama, Clinton has been on his radar. She made Obama’s short list for vice president, but lost out to Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware.

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Having passed over Clinton once, Obama would be hard-pressed to do it again by dangling the secretary of State’s job and then giving it to someone else, members of Clinton’s circle said.

“Having trifled with her on the vice presidency, it seems unlikely he’s going to trifle with her on this,” said one former Clinton advisor, who like other Clinton associates requested anonymity to be able to speak more openly.

Clinton’s Senate office referred questions to the Obama transition headquarters. “Any speculation about Cabinet or other administration appointments is really for President-elect Obama’s transition team to address,” said Philippe Reines, a Clinton spokesman.

Obama’s office declined to comment.

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Former President Clinton’s staff also would not comment, except to say that he had not been making phone calls to push for his wife’s nomination.

Other candidates for secretary of State include Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the party’s 2004 presidential nominee; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who met Friday with Obama, a Democratic official said.

Obama is running a closed-mouthed transition operation, so it is difficult to assess the seriousness of Clinton’s chances. Obama’s team could be floating the prospect as a trial balloon to gauge public reaction. Or Clinton’s allies may be talking up the possibility in hopes of influencing public opinion and improving her chances.

One thing is clear: Obama has done nothing to bat down speculation that Clinton may take one of the premier Cabinet posts in his administration.

Clinton’s foreign policy bona fides were a running theme during the primaries.

She tried to make foreign affairs a selling point, repeatedly telling crowds that as first lady she had visited more than 80 countries. But she occasionally overreached. Clinton was forced to backtrack after claiming she had to evade sniper fire when landing in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996. Archival footage showed a peaceful arrival, not the harrowing scene she described.

During a conference call with reporters in February, her aides were asked to name a single foreign policy crisis in which she was tested. There was a lengthy pause. A reply offered by one aide seemed beside the point: She had been endorsed by more than two dozen high-ranking military officers.

Were Obama to choose her, Clinton might face tough questions during Senate confirmation hearings. Her husband has raised millions of dollars overseas for his presidential library. The Saudi royal family was reportedly among the contributors.

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The Clintons’ refusal to make public the names of donors dogged Sen. Clinton’s presidential campaign. Obama aides pressed her to release the names of all donors to her husband’s library and charitable foundation.

David Plouffe, as Obama’s campaign manager, had once called Sen. Clinton “one of the most secretive politicians in America today.”

Her husband’s associations could also face renewed scrutiny.

In recent years, his charitable foundation received $31 million from Frank Giustra, a Canadian mining businessman, the New York Times reported. Months earlier, the former president accompanied Giustra on a trip to Kazakhstan, where Clinton touted an effort by the country’s leader to head an international pro-democracy group. That position was at odds with U.S. policy on Kazakhstan’s human rights record. Giustra’s company later signed deals for uranium projects in Kazakhstan.

Sen. Clinton’s allies said that her husband’s work should not be a barrier.

Lanny J. Davis, a longtime friend of the family, said of President Clinton: “He has no business interests; that’s a complete myth.” Davis added that the former president’s efforts “raising money for AIDS” prevention and tsunami relief should not be grounds for concern.

Sen. Clinton spoke Friday at a conference on public transit in Albany, N.Y. She joked about reports of her travel to Chicago. “I have to start by saying I’m very happy there is so much press attention and interest in transit, especially guesses about my own . . . " she said to laughter. “Let me just say that I’m not going to speculate or address anything about the president-elect’s incoming administration. And I’m going to respect his process.”

As a defeated candidate for president, Clinton has several paths open to her. One model is Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. After he lost the Democratic nomination to Jimmy Carter in 1980, Kennedy focused on passing major legislation, and compiled a formidable record.

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Yet on one of her signature issues -- healthcare -- Clinton may already have been upstaged. Legislative colleagues, including Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), already have come out with detailed healthcare overhauls.

By trading in her Senate job for secretary of State, Clinton would command a global stage. She could use the position to take up causes that have long been important to her: Middle East peace, a resolution to the Iraq war, and international respect for women’s rights.

But she would also face internal competition for control of Obama’s foreign policy portfolio. Biden, who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, considers foreign affairs to be a specialty and will undoubtedly want a strong hand in shaping the nation’s diplomatic strategy.

Still, Clinton’s friends believe the job would be a good fit.

Davis said: “There’s no question in my mind that the combination of Barack Obama as president and Hillary Clinton -- who is a great listener and has the rare ability to walk in other people’s shoes and see the world through their eyes -- would make a dramatic impact in international relations.”

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peter.nicholas@latimes.com


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