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Politics? Rice is focused on job she has now

Politics? Rice is focused on job she has now

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Secretary of State works to promote president's ideas abroad. A run for

office of her own is 'not my calling.'

WASHINGTON -- She has higher public opinion ratings than other senior Bush administration officials, and a best-selling book calls her the party's best chance to hold the White House in 2008. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rolls her eyes at talk of a future in politics.

"Let's go back to North Korea," Rice joked during an interview Monday in her State Department office. Elective politics is "not my calling in life."

Since becoming secretary of State 10 months ago, Rice has had little time to think about her next job. She has kept a punishing schedule of foreign travel, promoting the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda.

First as Bush's foreign policy adviser during his 2000 presidential campaign and then as his first-term national security adviser, Rice worked mostly outside the spotlight until this year. Now, as the administration grapples with challenges created by the wars in Iraq and against terrorism, Rice is the nation's public face promoting the ideas closest to the president.

It's a role that suits her, says Kiron Skinner, an international relations expert at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a longtime friend of Rice. "She's best when she's trying to find her way out of the storm."

Rice "is a very poised and articulate person," agrees John Ikenberry, a Princeton University professor of politics and international affairs. But the Bush administration's controversial policies in Iraq and elsewhere, he says, make it harder for Rice to succeed now.

"The second Bush term doesn't have much room for maneuver in terms of willing partners, resources and a vision," he says.

Rice as secretary

Since taking over the State Department, Rice has scored victories, including bringing the United States and Europe closer on how to deal with Iran. She pushed Israel to agree on a plan allowing Palestinians to pass into its land from Gaza, which Israel left in September.

She has also spent most of the year echoing the president's emphasis on spreading democracy throughout the world, including those nations in Africa, Asia and the Middle East that have never had a freely elected government.

In October, she visited three Central Asian nations to either goad their leaders to support democratic elections or to congratulate them for doing so.

Rice has not come down hard on oil-rich Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic that held flawed presidential elections last month, or harshly criticized Russians over draft legislation that would make it difficult for foreign pro-democracy and human rights groups to work in Russia.

Apart from canceling a trip to Egypt last year to protest the arrest of an opposition politician, "there's not a lot of there there when you get below the speeches," says Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor close to Rice.

Rice says her speeches are heartfelt and that political change is the only way to fight an "ideology of hatred that made ... people fly airplanes into buildings."

She has spent time rebuilding alliances damaged after the United States invaded Iraq without widespread international support.

Rice worked with European governments to slow Iran's progress toward nuclear weapons. She made a special trip to Russia in October to persuade the Russians to back possible United Nations sanctions against Iran.

With France and the United Nations, she coordinated attempts to isolate Syria after the assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister in February, an attack in which a U.N. report implicated some Syrian officials.

However, European allies have been roiled by allegations of secret CIA prisons for terrorism detainees in Eastern Europe. She spent much of the past week defending U.S. policy toward terrorism detainees, calling it vital to protect the United States and other nations. She neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such prisons.


Rice has showed greater flexibility in the ongoing six-nation talks on North Korea's nuclear program, permitting extensive one-on-one negotiations with North Korean diplomats.

Problems caused by the Iraq war forced U.S. policy to change, says Madeleine Albright, former secretary of State. "By necessity, she has had to take a different approach because the facts have shown that we can't do everything ourselves."

Rice says any policy changes since her predecessor Colin Powell left have been "overstated" by the news media. Powell agrees, saying the administration tried to work with other nations before. "We were doing things multilaterally left and right," in the first term, but "we couldn't quite get there" on Iraq.

Powell's former chief of staff, Larry Wilkerson, said a "cabal" of conservatives led by Vice President Cheney limited Powell's ability to shape policy.

Rice has the flexibility to carry out many of the policies Powell supported, because she has more leverage in dealing with Cheney, says Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and Powell ally. "I'm glad to see Colin Powell succeeding in absentia," Hagel said in a speech last month.

Rice acknowledges that she benefits from her close relationship with the president. She calls Powell a "great" secretary who had a "wonderful relationship with Bush."

Political future

The question of which Republican can keep the White House in 2008 has led some GOP activists to look to Rice.

A new book by political strategist Dick Morris and his wife, Eileen McGann -- Condi vs. Hillary: The Next Great Presidential Race -- says Rice would be the perfect opponent for New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 election.

Rice "never needed to exaggerate her record or credentials," the book says, and is a more devout Christian than Clinton, the former first lady.

"I hear from a lot of people that they would be interested in seeing Rice run" in 2008, Republican strategist Charlie Black says. But her lack of campaign experience, he says, makes her a more likely choice for vice president.

A recent USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll showed Rice with an approval rating of 63%, far above Bush, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who are all in the upper 30s or lower 40s.

The first African-American woman to rise to such heights in government service, Rice, at 51, consistently denies any domestic ambitions -- apart, she says, from running the National Football League if asked. She insisted during the interview Monday that she expects to be back grading papers at Stanford after the administration leaves office in 2009.

Nevertheless, Skinner says, Rice didn't ask to be secretary of State. "Many people see her as a super-ambitious overachiever," he says. "To me, opportunities come her way because she's so prepared."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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