WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) insists he's above politics, but President Bush's chief diplomat still occasionally takes a shot at his boss' opponent. So do the secretaries of Commerce, Defense, Education and Labor in a reflection of the advantages of incumbency.
Not unlike past re-election campaigns, the president's surrogates finding fault with a rival or cheering for the incumbent's policies often include the Cabinet, whose 15 members are participating in the campaign to various degrees.
On Sunday, Powell was the first senior Bush administration official to challenge presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry (search) to name the foreign leaders he said supported his candidacy. "If he can't list names, then perhaps he should find something else to talk about," Powell said.
Last week, the chief diplomat rejected as "absolute nonsense" Kerry's claim that Powell has been undercut by Bush administration hawks led by Vice President Dick Cheney (search).
Yet, when questioned by teenagers in India Tuesday about Kerry's stance on outsourcing U.S. jobs, Powell declined to get into a discussion, saying, "Now he is a political candidate and I'm secretary of State, and I don't do politics."
Cabinet members are political appointees whose chief executive needs votes to continue in the top job — and to ensure that they remain gainfully employed. Officials in the Bush administration have traveled to states up for grabs this November, tailored their appearances to reach voting constituencies the president needs and borrowed phrases from Bush stump speeches to assail Kerry.
Last week, Commerce Secretary Donald Evans (search) criticized Kerry, arguing that the four-term Massachusetts senator has "voted to increase taxes 350 times. And when you increase taxes, it destroys jobs."
Aside from the vice president, traditionally the surrogate in chief, Cabinet members can be the next best in spreading the president's message and denouncing his challengers.
"Any political appointee can be used by the president as an attack dog," said Ross Baker, professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Even lesser-known secretaries can be used to court generous fund-raisers or the party's political base. But no matter their position, they must walk a fine line between partisanship and advocating for a specific policy.
Whether dealing with members of Congress or foreign leaders, Cabinet members could complicate bipartisan or international cooperation if they appear too political, said Norm Ornstein, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute.
"You're running the risk that your moral authority on the issues you deal with will be comprised here," Ornstein said.
As the president sometimes does in speeches, his appointees avoid mentioning Kerry by name, instead using phrases such as "some of the president's opponents."
On Monday, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick (search), an executive branch official, used a news conference on a free trade agreement with the Dominican Republic to pledge that the administration intended to keep pushing for more deals as a way of fighting the forces of "economic isolationism," a phrase Bush has used to criticize Kerry.
Treasury Secretary John Snow (search), in Florida talking up the president's economic policies March 5 - three days after Super Tuesday established Kerry as the presumptive Democratic nominee - took this swipe: "Tax cuts and open markets are the key to job creation. You've heard some of the president's opponents talk about isolationism but in your profession, you know that trade is a lifeblood."
The Cabinet also engages in politics simply by picking their spots.
Evans, chairman of Bush's 2000 election campaign, joined Snow and Labor Secretary Elaine Chao in mid-February for a campaign-style bus trip to Oregon and Washington state - both of which Bush narrowly lost to Al Gore in 2000 — to champion the president's economic initiatives. Last summer, they took a similar tour through two other battleground states, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
In November, Snow promoted the president's economic plan in New Mexico, which Bush lost by a hair, and Arizona, a state he won by just 6 percentage points.
As one of the Cabinet's marquee members, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has so far tended to avoid questions about Kerry.
Asked Tuesday in a radio interview if he knows of any foreign leaders supporting Kerry's candidacy, Rumsfeld said: "I've been asked to kind of stay out of politics by the president, Colin Powell and I."
He added: "But I certainly agree that if that's the case, it would be interesting for the American people to know who they are, and why they feel that way."
On Sunday, the defense secretary issued this caveat: "It's obviously difficult if those issues become prominent and we have to discuss those issues, but we will be doing it in a manner that is not campaign-style at all."