While speculation in the political world over Mitt Romney's vice presidential choice courses through the summer barbecue circuit, an equally juicy topic is beginning to bubble up among foreign policy analysts: Who might be secretary of state in a Romney administration?
The Romney campaign is tight-lipped, but names are beginning to fly, and the few campaign insiders willing to speak on the condition of anonymity say there is no guarantee that the former Massachusetts governor will draw from the pool of foreign policy advisers in his inner circle for his top diplomat.
"There are going to be a lot of high-profile candidates on the table to form Gov. Romney's foreign policy Cabinet," said one source close to the campaign. "Some will probably come from his list of advisers, and some will probably come from outside."
Close campaign observers say an outsider is more likely.
Mr. Romney is "almost certain to reach beyond his present advisory group to other conservatives who have served in past administrations," said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus and board senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Few expect the fall race to turn on foreign policy issues, but Mr. Romney appears to have made some progress in convincing voters of his ability to deal with global affairs, once thought a clear source of strength for the president. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in April found President Obama favored by 53 percent to 36 percent among voters on his ability to handle foreign policy issues, but a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found the president's advantage down to 47 percent compared with 44 percent for Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney's Foggy Bottom shortlist, said Mr. Gelb, probably will include recently retired World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick and Stephen J. Hadley, who served as national security adviser for four years under President George W. Bush.
Neither man is among the 24 foreign policy analysts listed as special advisers to the campaign.
Other potential contenders for Foggy Bottom not on the list of analysts are Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, both of whom Mr. Gelb thinks will be in the running.
"These are people of great experience, and it's typical once you get into the selection process to look for people with experience," Mr. Gelb said.
A neocon contender
But what about John R. Bolton? The ambassador to the United Nations under Mr. Bush is on the campaign's advisory team and is probably its most outspoken and prolific op-ed writer.
The Romney-Bolton connection firmed up in 2010 when both came out against the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia. The treaty, which has since been passed by Congress and signed by Mr. Obama, was a divisive issue among Republicans. Retiring Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, led an unsuccessful drive to block the accord.
"New START pitted the more neocon side of the party, the Jon Kyls and John Boltons against what I would call the more traditional internationalist wing of Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and even Dick Lugar," said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. "Romney basically ignored their arguments and came out pretty strongly against the treaty."
But the extent to which Mr. Romney aligns himself with the rest of Mr. Bolton's bare-knuckle foreign policy positions is not clear.
"If America does not provide stability, there are only two other possibilities," Mr. Bolton wrote recently in Townhall Magazine. "Either no one will provide it, and the ensuing vacuum will threaten international peace and prosperity, or others will step into the void. The United States can be certain they will not be looking out for America's best interests, but for their own."
The interventionist tone of such assertions seems to make some of Mr. Romney's foreign policy advisers uncomfortable.
Several told The Washington Times in recent weeks that Mr. Romney believes the U.S. must take aggressive steps to "defend" its values abroad, but recoiled when asked whether Mr. Romney believes in "projecting" such values abroad.
"It's a good question," one foreign policy aide said.
If Mr. Romney does pick his foreign policy Cabinet from the campaign's current pool of advisers, Mr. Bolton probably won't make the cut, Mr. Gelb said.
"My guess is that he couldn't get confirmed to be secretary of state or anything like that, just based on past experience," he said. "Romney might take him on as some kind of special adviser in the White House, but I don't think he'll appoint him to anything."
Jockeying for position
Recent weeks, meanwhile, have brought what another campaign insider described as an attempt by some advisers to jockey for position - if not to gain influence over Mr. Romney's message, then to get their names atop the list of possible Cabinet nominees.
"Clearly there are some people politicking at the top," the insider said.
Among the campaign's key advisers are former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden; Mitchell Reiss, who once served as director of policy planning at the State Department; and Eliot Cohen, who heads the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and penned the foreword to the Romney campaign's 43-page foreign policy white paper last fall.
Also being mentioned is Robert Kagan, a pre-eminent conservative foreign policy theorist who - in an ironic twist - is married to Victoria Nuland, the chief spokeswoman for Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But there are no guarantees any of them will end up in a National Security Council, U.N. ambassador or top State Department posting.
"My experience goes back to an awful lot of presidential campaigns, and generally, you just don't know these things," said Richard Williamson, who served key positions in the George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush administrations as well as the Reagan administration. He is one of the few Romney advisers willing to speak openly without having his remarks vetted by the campaign's full-time staff.
"At the end of June four years ago," Mr. Williamson queried, "was there anyone who would have thought Hillary Clinton would be secretary of state for Barack Obama?"
Others say that once the summer convention season has passed and Mr. Romney's lock on the nomination is ratified, he may be inclined to swing toward the center with his Cabinet position shortlists.
Former Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., who served as U.S. ambassador to China under Mr. Obama until last year and then ran against Mr. Romney during the GOP primaries, likely would be in the running.
Mr. Romney's outspoken affinity for Israel, along with his hard-line rhetorical posture toward Iran, could bring into the race even retiring Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent whom 2008 GOP nominee John McCain briefly considered as a running mate.
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